Plastic pollution is universally accepted as having dire effects on the world’s marine life and ecosystems, in addition to presenting risks to human health including through the leaching of chemical additives and consumption of microplastics contained in seafood.
Yet while there are a number of international, national and localised commitments, policies and initiatives designed to reduce plastic pollution and marine litter, there is currently no singular, binding policy with measurable targets at global level.
With emissions of plastic waste into aquatic ecosystems projected to nearly triple by 2040 without meaningful action, the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (which runs from 28 February to 2 March in Nairobi, Kenya, under the theme of “Strengthening Actions for Nature to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals”) is designed to bring together representatives from more than 190 countries to mandate a global approach.
Member States will be deliberating proposals to establish an intergovernmental negotiating committee (INC) to work towards a legally-binding global instrument on plastics. This direction of travel is being jointly welcomed by scientists at the University of Plymouth, Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML), University of Exeter and the Marine Biological Association (MBA) - four of the UK’s leading scientific institutes which have been at the forefront of research on marine plastics, and its many impacts, for the past three decades.
More than 150 countries - including the UK - are understood to be supportive of a global treaty, which would support progress towards the ambition set out within UN Sustainable Development Goal #14 (‘Life below Water’) to “prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution, by 2025”. A manifesto signed by many of the world’s leading companies in support of such a treaty - which could potentially resemble the Paris Agreement on Climate Change - has also been published.
For marine scientists in Plymouth and Exeter, the scale of the plastics crisis and its many environmental and social impacts is both a core area of study and a profound source of concern. The term ‘microplastics’ was coined during ground-breaking research led by the University of Plymouth in 2004 and, in the years that have followed, all four institutions have pioneered research - individually and collectively - on areas including methods for monitoring and tracking marine plastics, the effects of plastics on marine life, economies and human health and wellbeing, as well as solutions to mitigate plastic pollution.
Much of this award-winning and highly-cited research and expertise has informed UK and international policy to date - in turn helping to build momentum and inform the detail of future global action.