learning pathway on: ocean plastics

By Elisa Morgera

Ocean plastics has quickly become the most visible and widely known ocean health issue. It has climbed policy agendas nationally and internationally. It has brought needed attention to the wider problem of “land-based marine pollution” – pollution of the ocean from waste that is generated on land, although ocean plastics are also partly caused by waste from fishing vessels. By now, ocean plastic are by far the biggest component of marine litter and pose a variety of threats to marine life and to the benefits that humans derive from thriving marine ecosystems.

While certain regulatory solutions have already been quickly found at the international level to address the problem, there has also been a growing realization that ocean plastics is part of a broader phenomenon of plastic pollution and that it is necessary to address the “full life-cycle of plastics” to find real, integrated and long-lasting solutions, so a new international treaty on this topic will be negotiated, starting in late 2022. This has been a particularly important development, because significant levels of misinformation had shaped the debate until recently, notably with too much faith placed in plastic recycling (currently, only 10% of plastics is recycled globally) and on plastic as a consumption and waste issue, as opposed to a production issue that is also linked to climate change.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics and Human Rights produced a ground-breaking report in 2021 underscoring the negative impacts on human rights of plastic pollution, including of misinformation on plastics. In addition, the UN Environment Programme raised awareness about the need to consider the justice issues around ocean plastics, both in terms of the inequities between Global North countries and Global South countries, and with regard to local communities and vulnerable groups that are particularly negatively affected by plastic pollution. As a result, more attention has been paid to better understand the different layers of environmental injustices related to ocean plastics, and the human rights impacts, including on children. All these considerations also need to be taken into account in how we advance ocean science research, as part of the UN Decade for Ocean Science, what we need the business sector to do, and how we need to include local voices in international decision-making processes on ocean plastics.