At a meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly on 6 December, delegates agreed to establish a task force to advise on combating the global crisis of oceanic plastic pollution.
‘An estimated 4.4 to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic are added to the oceans annually,’ according to scientists for the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAS), arguing before the UN resolution for why international consensus is needed. ‘More than 50 per cent of the ocean’s area sits beyond national jurisdiction, including the infamous “garbage patches” in oceanic gyres where plastic accumulates.’
The new resolution, agreed in Nairobi, urges all countries to, ‘by 2025, prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution.’
While this is an important step towards reducing and eventually eliminating plastic waste from the ocean, the UN resolution has no timetable and is not legally binding. It is also a significantly watered down version of the original motion. A stronger commitment was rejected after the US would not agree to any specific, internationally-agreed goals.
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A particular emphasis was put on tackling microbeads, stressing ‘the urgent need for strengthened knowledge on the levels and effects of micro- and nanoplastics on marine ecosystems, seafood and human health.’
Each year billions of these tiny beads end up in our seas from a range of products such as face scrubs, toothpastes and shower gels. They build up in the marine environment and can be swallowed by sea life, including fish and crustaceans.
‘Microplastics can impair reproduction and development and alter how species function, disperse, and assemble,’ says PNAS, which makes them a particularly serious threat to marine ecosystems.
In the UK last year, Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom announced plans to ban the sale and manufacture of cosmetics and personal care products containing microbeads.
‘Adding plastic to products like face washes and body scrubs is wholly unnecessary when harmless alternatives can be used,’ said Leadsom speaking in 2016. ‘This government is committed to its promise to be the first generation ever to leave the environment in a better state than it inherited, and together we can bring an end to these harmful plastics clogging up our oceans.’
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