31 May 2016

Protecting the oceans against plastic pollution

Marine plastic pollution is a global problem and requires global action.

Judith Wehrli

Sustainability – whether in the use of raw materials, or in the areas of food and agriculture, climate and water – is central to a number of research projects conducted at the WTI. Sustainability in law is a particular focus. An interview with Judith Wehrli, who is researching the legal framework relating to marine plastic pollution. Her doctoral work highlights the social, ecological and economic effects from a sustainability perspective and shows how coherent legislation could result in a better protection of the oceans against plastic pollution.

The ecological impact of plastic pollution of the oceans is evident. But what are the main social and economic consequences?

Marine plastic pollution has a wide range of social and economic impacts. Environmental damage to marine ecosystems has been estimated at $13 billion per year. Related economic costs include those linked to clean-up operations, litter removal, the repair and replacement of damaged vessels and gear, reduced fishing catches, and a decline in coastal tourism and impact on related industries.

Social costs include a potential reduction in the recreational and aesthetic values of the marine environment. Plastic pollution moreover poses a threat to human health either through direct impact (for instance sharp splinters of broken plastic in the sand) or through harmful toxic substances. These toxins have the potential to bioaccumulate throughout the food chain and negatively impact on human health when consumed with seafood.

Who is most affected?

The costs are borne by a wide range of actors and industries, including the shipping, tourism and fishing industries, and to a lesser extent, aquaculture and agriculture. In addition, coastal municipalities, governments and local communities often have to bear high costs for clean-up operations, awareness-raising activities and education.

Plastic fragments can be found in the remotest places, but are usually more abundant close to population centres. Especially areas close to urban centres, river mouths and tourist beaches can be highly polluted. Accumulation patterns moreover depend on global ocean currents. The degree to which countries are affected by marine litter thus depends on their geographic location and level of exposure. However, it also depends on their economy and level of income. National economies that largely depend on coastal tourism or the fishing industry are more vulnerable to the economic consequences of marine plastic pollution. Finally, low-income countries often lack the necessary financial and other resources to set in place effective mitigation measures and efficient waste management and sewage systems. As a consequence, they have difficulties in controlling their own pollution sources.

The costs associated with marine plastic pollution are mostly borne by those who are exposed to the negative impacts rather than those responsible for the problem.

Pollution is caused by human behaviour. To what extent can laws regulate that?

It is true that plastic pollution is to a large extent a behavioural problem. Additionally, the problem is due to a lack of waste management services and infrastructure, financial resources, technologies and knowhow, as well as education and awareness.

The behavioural side of the problem, reflected in consumption and production patterns, but also in disposal behaviour, can efficiently be addressed by a range of policies and measures at all levels of governance, from global to local. Many countries and the EU have adopted strategies to tackle marine litter more effectively. These include an overarching framework for preventing, reducing, and otherwise managing marine litter. Other countries regulate certain aspects, including the production of plastic pellets or specifically problematic plastic products, the use of such products at the retail level and their disposal.

The dumping of waste at sea and other pollution from ships is regulated at the international level (and to a large extent prohibited, especially with regard to plastic products). Implementation by states is, however, inconsistent and overall not very effective. There needs to be effective national regulation for the international regulatory framework to be implemented.

With regard to land-based sources of marine litter, which account for about 80 percent of marine plastic debris, possible measures include bans on single-use plastic carrier bags in shops, on non-recoverable plastics such as microbeads (microplastic particles) in cosmetic products and abrasives, and on single-use plastic utensils such as stirrers, cups, plates and cutlery. Apart from bans, taxes and other levies on the production or use of these products have proved highly effective. Further regulatory measures include fixed penalties for littering, landfill taxes, extended producer responsibility, mandatory recycling schemes and minimal packaging requirements to disincentivise the use of disposable plastics and harmful disposal methods, and incentivise the reuse of products, the design of environmentally less harmful materials and products, the optimisation of product life spans, recycling, etc.

What sort of legal framework is needed to improve the condition of our oceans?

Marine plastic pollution is a global problem and requires global action. It occurs everywhere, from the Antarctic to the Arctic, from the sea surface to the seabed and around the globe. Both sources and impacts are extremely diverse. All states, including land-locked countries, potentially contribute to marine plastic pollution, although to different degrees. Because neither marine plastic pollution nor affected ecosystems respect national boundaries, no state can tackle the problem on its own. All states, each according to its responsibility and capabilities, are required to contribute.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and respective customary rules obligate states to protect and preserve the marine environment and to take all measures necessary to prevent, reduce and control marine pollution from all sources, including land-based sources. While the provision may seem sufficient at first glance, it is most evidently not implemented in an effective or adequate way. The respective obligations are not absolute but obligations of due diligence. This means that the degree of expected care depends on the capabilities of states, that is, on available financial means and other resources, technologies and know-how. Under the current system, states do not have an interest in challenging other states before a dispute settlement body, as responsibilities cannot easily be determined. Enforcement of the provisions is, therefore, a major challenge.

The global framework can be strengthened if these challenges are taken into account. An effective and efficient framework would provide guidance with regard to the standard of care through a set of international standards, and address equity concerns. It would provide for enforcement, coherence and support for those countries lacking the capacities to implement agreed standards on their own.