The Pacific’s active role in global negotiations on a marine plastics treaty
16 Aug 2022|

The Albanese government is advancing Australia’s Pacific interests by supporting island nations’ efforts to deal with marine plastics pollution. The amount of plastic waste in the oceans is projected to approximately double by 2030 and even triple by 2040. Plastics have now reached the deepest parts of the oceans and are being ingested by the animals that live there. An ocean scientist observed: ’the junk on the ocean’s surface has a one-way ticket to the deep sea—where it will remain.’

At the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon in June, Environment and Water Minister Tanya Plibersek said she’d like to see a plastic-free Pacific in her lifetime. She promised $16 million to help update Pacific laws to ban single-use plastics and for public information campaigns to encourage people to use less plastic and develop alternatives to single-use plastics. Plibersek promised support to strengthen waste management in the region. She also noted that Australians were eating a credit card-sized volume of microplastics every week, according to one report.

Plastics pollution is taking its toll on the health of Pacific communities, degrading natural ecosystems and threatening their food security. And it’s not just an eyesore. Marine plastics contribute to climate change through direct gas emissions and indirectly by negatively affecting ocean organisms.

Things are, however, moving quickly at a global level to deal with plastic marine debris. The UN Environment Assembly agreed in March to a resolution to ‘End plastic pollution: towards an international legally binding instrument’ and the formation of an intergovernmental negotiating committee to negotiate a new binding global agreement covering the whole life cycle of plastics. The committee first meets in November in Uruguay.

This activity at the international level is very much in line with last September’s Pacific regional declaration on the prevention of marine litter and plastic pollution and its impacts, where Pacific leaders expressed grave concern about the environmental, social, cultural, economic, human rights, human health and food-security impacts of plastics pollution.

It’s also in line with two other significant ocean policy developments. At the July Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Suva, leaders adopted the ambitious 2050 strategy for the blue Pacific continent. One of the strategy’s seven key themes, ‘ocean and environment’, commits to protecting the ocean and its resources from pollution. The strategy is the forum’s aspirational agenda for the next three decades.

At the UN Ocean Conference, where Pacific leaders urged the international community to combat plastic pollution, world leaders adopted a political declaration, Our ocean, our future, our responsibility. Among other goals, the declaration stressed the value of preventing, reducing and eliminating marine plastic litter, including single-use plastics and microplastics. It noted the devastating impacts the Covid‑19 pandemic has had on small island states through increased amounts of plastic medical waste.

The Pacific islands contribute less than 1.3% of the mismanaged plastics in the world’s oceans but they’re one of the main recipients of marine plastics. Most have inadequate or under-resourced waste management infrastructure. Recycling is constrained by intra- and inter-island logistical and transport challenges, lack of collection and sorting facilities, limited port capacity and difficulty in securing and retaining markets for post-consumer materials. Many islands have limited landfill space and high shipping costs. Reliable waste collection services are primarily available to communities living only in the capital cities, not outer islands. Another challenge in recent years has been the increased frequency of cyclones and subsequent clean-ups impacting on local landfills. Many sites have been unable to cope with the sheer volume of waste.

But many measures are working well, such as the comprehensive regional framework for sustainable waste management and pollution prevention, Cleaner Pacific 2025.  The Pacific Ocean Litter Projectis a six-year regional program (2019–2025) to reduce single-use plastics from land-based sources and strengthen policy and legislative frameworks including the implementation of bans and levies.

Most of the ‘low hanging fruit’ of product bans has already been picked in the region. It’s impressive that around 70% of Pacific island states have policies banning single-use plastics and polystyrene, and more island countries are declaring commitments to do so. The total pledge will soon reach over 90% of states and territories.

A useful regional initiative is the Moana Taka Partnership with Swire Shipping Company providing free freight for non-commercial waste from Pacific islands to any destination within its Asia–Pacific network. Swire vessels use empty shipping containers to take away non-commercial recyclable waste.

Good work is also being undertaken by the Forum Fisheries Agency and the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission to stop the dumping by fishing vessel crews of plastic waste at sea.

The intergovernmental committee aims to complete its work to produce a plastics treaty by 2024. It’s got a broad mandate to develop both binding and voluntary measures, set global targets and produce mechanisms for tracking progress and ensuring accountability. The measures could include limits on the production of plastic, the phasing out of single-use products and requirements to recycle.

Pacific island countries have been actively calling for a global plastics treaty and are now preparing to participate at the intergovernmental committee’s meetings. They’ll play a strong role in ensuring any agreement is responsive to the needs of the region and its measures are effectively implemented. This week the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), with funding support from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, will hold a Pacific regional preparatory workshop in Suva on the committee’s role. Member countries will examine the barriers and the needs of the island countries in areas such as technology transfer, capacity building and finance. The committee aims, in just five meetings, to produce a global treaty to solve the ‘wicked’ problem of marine plastics.

The island nations have demonstrated real coherence on the marine debris issue and lessons can be shared with the countries of the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia. These can range from best practices in reducing or eliminating waste, effective monitoring, education and community programs, and technology around repurposing, recycling and reuse of plastic waste.

Before and after the committee’s first meeting later this year there should be greater dialogue involving the Pacific Islands Forum, SPREP, the Indian Ocean Rim Association and ASEAN on plastics pollution.

This could be along the lines of the workshop on plastic debris organised by Australia, India and Singapore in February and last month’s Indo-Pacific oceans initiative webinar on marine litter co-hosted by the Australia’s CSIRO, India’s National Centre for Coastal Research and Indonesia’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Research and Technology. Its goal? To prevent littering from space down to the deepest seas.