Pacific faces new battle: plastic addiction

Plastic pollution at the Honiara sea front. PHOTO: Charley Piringi

It’s a familiar story.

While Pacific negotiators recently emerged disappointed but resolute over the result of the climate change negotiations in Dubai, they are also engaged on a new front; a treaty to govern the management of plastics.

While the Pacific contributes less than 1.3% of global plastic pollution, our ocean is inundated with bulk of the world’s transboundary washed-away plastics, which has serious negative environmental, health, cultural and socio-economic consequences.

International efforts are underway towards a legally binding treaty to address the plastics crisis, with a deadline of late 2024 for agreement.

The special circumstances and vulnerabilities of Pacific Island are again being stressed by government negotiators, as their small size, small economies and geographic location make them more susceptible to shocks caused by the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and plastic pollution.

“Plastic pollution, including in our ocean, has repercussions far beyond debris-ravaged beaches or dramatic pictures of the great Pacific garbage patch. It represents tremendous public costs in terms of waste management, and potentially undermines critical economic sectors of our societies, including tourism or fisheries. Most importantly, plastic pollution in the ocean, in the water, in the soil and the air is a threat to human health,” Pacific Ocean Commissioner, Dr Filimon Manoni has told Pacific Island negotiators.

Cook Islands’ National Environment Service director Halatoa Fua has noted: “Our oceans and reefs are smothered with ghost fishing gear – which we know is a significant marine litter problem. It is entangling and killing threatened and protected marine species, and not forgetting the impacts of ingesting micro plastics for marine life and our marine food chain.

“Ghost gear is a serious issue for Pacific Small Island Developing States… iconic species such as whales, turtles, sharks, rays, dolphins are greatly affected by ghost gear,” said SPREP’s Director of Waste Management and Pollution Control, Anthony Talouli at recent plastics talks in Nairobi. 

“The current management practices and regimes such as the international convention for the protection of pollution from vessels (MARPOL), and regional instruments such as the WCPFC Conservation Management Measure 2017/04 on Marine Pollution, are not working,” he  said.

The problem is so acute that Parties to the Waigani Convention, a regional treaty aimed at tackling hazardous waste and other pollutants in the Pacific region, adopted its first-ever amendment in October to include plastic waste.

The amendments introduce stricter controls on the international trade in plastic waste. While in the past, many mixed and contaminated plastic wastes could be freely traded without the controls applied to other forms of hazardous waste, now only clean, uncontaminated plastic waste that is ready for recycling can be traded without these controls.

 The amendments also ensure that countries are well-aware and have given express permission before plastic waste enters their borders.

International efforts are underway towards a legally binding treaty to address the plastics crisis. Three meetings have been held in the bid to come up with a treaty, the most recent in Kenya in November.

In Nairobi, there was division over whether to manage plastics pollution from the “bottom up” — making nations responsible for environmental clean-up and costs — or mandate a stricter approach that clearly limits or bans production of “problematic” and hard-to-recycle plastics. 

The fourth session (INC-4) is scheduled to take place at the Shaw Centre in Ottawa, Canada, next April. The final session will be in Korea at the end of next year.

The plastics addiction

“The modern world is addicted to plastic. This is a fact. The first step to stop addiction is to admit there is a problem. We did that with UNEA 5/14. Now is the time to set the plan: quit the addiction, change our habits, and clean up,” the PSIDS Chair, Palau, told the gathering representing 161 Members, including the European Union and over 318 observer organisations – UN entities, intergovernmental organisations, and non-governmental organisations.

“The INC is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to end plastic pollution and the instrument under negotiation has enormous potential to create economic opportunities and alleviate poverty through new business models, new jobs, new market opportunities and new designs, materials, and products,” said the Regional Director and Representative for Asia and the Pacific for the UN Environment Programme, Dechen Tsering.

Pacific Islands nations have suggested the global plastic treaty be modelled on the Montreal Protocol which tackled the issue of ozone layer depletion.

They want a treaty that is ambitious, captures the entire lifecycle of plastics and has mandatory measures to end plastic pollution by 2040.

“We don’t have time to reinvent the wheel, a similar international agreement like the Montreal Protocol could be a game-changer in our fight against plastic waste, setting stringent standards and goals for reducing plastic pollution on a global scale. The plastic crisis is not just an environmental issue; it’s a matter of survival for our communities,” Vanuatu’s Director of the Department of Environmental Protection and Conservation, Touasi Tiwok has said.

Vanuatu was the first country in the world to ban plastic straws in 2018 through laws which also covered non-biodegradable plastic, including bags and polystyrene containers. Since then, the ban has been extended to include plastic cutlery and grocery packaging like netting and clamshell cases.

 “In the realm of transformative change, legislation is but a cornerstone. Through the collective effort of the private sector, government departments, our partners, and individuals we are starting to see visible improvement in plastic litter in Vanuatu”.

At INC3, Palau called for the new plastics treaty to focus on the full lifecycle of plastics, including production, rather than relying solely on recycling.

Palau’s location puts it in the same region as the top five countries responsible for 55-60% of global plastic leakage in the ocean, meaning it is at particular risk.

“It’s clear that plastic has served its time, it’s been a material that has been useful but now that we have recognised it is harmful, we should use this instrument as an opportunity to incentivise more sustainable alternatives,” said Permanent Representative of Palau to the UN and Chair of Pacific Small Island Developing States, Ilana Seid.

Tourism’s challenge

When tourism stakeholders met in Nadi for the Fiji Tourism Convention last week, the management of litter, particularly plastic waste, and its potential to destroy the environment which is so critical to Fiji’s tourism marketing, was a hot topic.

While some tourism operators are taking action, there were calls for a national awareness campaign and better waste management.

The IHG Hotels and Resorts group is operating a Manta Beach cleaner on iconic Natadola Beach, which collects and filters sand from seaweed, rubbish, rubble, and debris. Every Saturday morning it also offers a coffee to guests, resort employees and local residents who participate in beach cleanups.

 Fiji tourism leaders have also declared March 18 as the Official National Plastic Free Day and this year launched a ‘Wear a Pin – Support Recycling Movement,’ calls on all Fijians to wear a lapel pin to show solidarity and a commitment to supporting PRF’s recycling programs. The proceeds from the lapel pin campaign will go towards expanding PRF’s outreach programs to outer-islands and areas that are most susceptible to the harmful effects of waste, especially plastic.

However the sheer volume of plastics used by the industry will require deeper long-term solutions.

The Pacific Regional Environment Program (SPREP) and the Pacific Tourism Organisation (SPTO) are developing a single-use plastics standard and certification program.

The work, which will being next year, will involve the research, design, development, implementation and monitoring of a program focused on tourism business operators.

“While the Pacific remains a tourist paradise, the single-use plastics issue threatens the very essence of its charm. This partnership is yet another example of regional agencies coming together to address this problem to preserve the Pacific’s pristine environments. Tourists also have a role to play by making responsible choices and supporting businesses that prioritise sustainability,” said the Director of the Waste Management and Pollution Control Division at SPREP, Anthony Talouli.

IHG’s Manta Beach cleaner on Natadola Beach in Fiji

Solutions

Research by The Pew Charitable Trusts and its partners suggests that making changes throughout the plastic life cycle—from production through consumer use and beyond—could result in an 80% drop in the rate of ocean plastic pollution by 2040.

It found that five product types contribute to 85% of all plastic leaking into the ocean: monomaterial films (such as cling film and plastic wrap), carrier bags, bottles, sachets and multilayers (such as condiment and single-portion shampoo packets), and household goods (such as toothbrushes, pens and toys).

Pew’s 2020 report, Breaking the Plastic Wave, found that a system-wide approach is needed: to reuse, recycle and reorient or diversify products.

Reuse involves use of options such as refillable bottles, bulk dispensers, deposit-return-schemes, and packaging take-back schemes. It requires governments to build a stronger business case for renewables.

The organisation says recycling needs to become a more sustainable and profitable venture, and that removing fossil fuels subsidies and  enforcing design guidelines to enhance recyclability are necessary.

Pew says reorientation through sustainable alternatives could reduce pollution by 17% by 2040, but these products struggle to compete against those made of virgin fossil fuel-based polymers because of cost, consumer demand and lack of appropriate regulations.

Meanwhile at COP28 in Dubai, Pacific representatives continued to make the linkages between climate change and plastic pollution.

“The highest share of emissions for the plastics sector comes from the production of primary plastic polymers. Critically, 98% of primary plastics are derived from fossil fuels – from oil and gas, and sometimes coal. So, the effort that we are pursuing here in the climate COP to phase out fossil fuels is directly relevant to reducing primary plastic production,” said Fiji’s Ambassador Indonesia, Amenatave Yauvoli.

“Reducing primary plastic production and decarbonising plastics production is directly relevant to efforts to phase out fossil fuels and can make a vital contribution to the climate agenda. It results in a product that does not degrade, a product that remains present in our oceans, on our beaches, and in our soil,” he concluded.

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