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What needs to be done to protect the world’s oceans?

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The oceans of the world are awash with thousands – and perhaps millions – of tonnes of plastics. This pollution poisons marine life, disrupts breeding and is harmful to the ocean’s natural rhythms, on which the earth is hugely dependent.

At least a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed every year due to plastic ingestion, according to some estimates.

Up to five trillion pieces of plastic are thought to be floating in the world’s seas, and at least eight million tonnes of plastic are dumped into the world’s oceans each year.

This waste, which takes centuries to biodegrade – between 450 and 1,000 years for an individual plastic bottle – could also adversely affect human health. 

Killer bags 

Cleaning up this mess is a global challenge, but a single piece of paper is generating some hope among environmental campaigners that we could at least stop adding to the problem.

In December 2017, nearly 200 countries signed a United Nations resolution promising to stop ocean plastic waste. While the agreement is non-binding, it could signal a turning point in the fight against plastic in our seas.

Norway, which initiated the UN resolution, has seen plenty of evidence of plastic pollution, according to the county’s environment minister Vidar Helgesen.

“A fairly rare species of whale was stranded on a beach because of exhaustion and they simply had to kill it. In its tummy they found 30 plastic bags,” Helgesen says.

However, he hopes the agreement should make a difference, “There is very strong language in this resolution… We now have an agreement to explore a legally binding instrument and other measures, and that will be done at the international level over the next 18 months.”

Under the resolution, signed by all l93 UN member states, countries will also monitor how much plastic they dump in the oceans.

Desire to change

By 2025, up to 28 million tonnes of plastic could be being dumped into seas every year, according to research by global consultancy McKinsey, while, by 2050, 99% of seabirds are likely to have ingested some plastic.

More than half of the plastic polluting oceans originates from five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka, the McKinsey study said.  

China is the biggest producer of plastic waste but has been making efforts to cut down.

Erik Solheim, head of the United Nations Environment Programme, says: “If there is one nation changing at the moment more than anyone else, it’s China ... the speed and determination of the government to change is enormous.”

This shift in attitude has also been seen elsewhere. Taiwan has imposed plastic levies on 14 industries and more than 90,000 shops, while polluting plastic microbeads in cosmetics already have or will be banned in many countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and South Korea.  

Meanwhile the European Union wants all plastic packaging to be recyclable or reusable by 2030, and the British prime minister recently promised to eliminate plastic waste by 2043.

Private problem

This is not solely a regulatory matter, the private sector has a vital role to play in tackling plastic pollution too. For example, multinationals like Coca-Cola and Unilever are promising to step-up recycling efforts as a result of the growing public and political pressure.

Private sector innovation is also behind a major effort to clean up the existing waste in the Pacific Ocean. The Ocean Cleanup project aims to remove half of the plastic stuck in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within the next five years.

Joint approach

Tackling this problem requires commitment from governments, businesses and citizens.

Governments can impose taxes on plastics and enforce recycling regimes, but businesses need to develop and use cheap, environmentally friendly replacements.

Meanwhile, consumers must make it clear waste plastic is no longer acceptable: recycling, reusing and avoiding plastic sends a forceful message.

But we have become addicted to the stuff, and it will take a sustained effort by everyone to kick the habit.