Plastic waste pollution continues to be a significant environmental challenge for the world today. Each year, 320 million tonnes of plastic are produced and more than eight million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean, largely due to land-based sources or activities.
In fact, it is estimated 80 to 90 per cent of the plastic in our seas originates from these sources or activities. In 2018, the Ocean Conservancy, the organisation that co-ordinates the annual International Coastal Clean-up, reported over 97 million items were collected from over 35,000 kilometres of coastline, and the top ten items collected (over 21 million in total) were plastic.
Studies have shown marine life can ingest plastics or become entangled in and choked by it. Plastic debris has also been linked to increases in coral disease outbreaks—it stresses corals and can cause structural damage, thereby giving pathogens a foothold for invasion.
Polluting food sources
An emerging area of concern is microplastics—pieces of plastic smaller than five millimetres in diameter. Microplastics have been found in the stomachs of hundreds of different species from all levels of the food web, for example, whales, dolphins, seals, fish, birds, shrimp, oysters and zooplankton. In 2019, a study from a plastic-polluted site in the USA showed one species of coral preferentially consumed microbeads (used, for example, in soaps and cosmetics) over their natural food—brine shrimp eggs.
While the impacts of microplastics are not yet well understood, it is thought they may pose a potential health risk to humans as they can absorb and transport chemical contaminants, and are present in the human food web.
Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in the Caribbean are likely to be quite vulnerable to plastic waste pollution as these states are small in size and have limited resources, which make it difficult to put the necessary waste management systems in place. There are also potential economic impacts as many of these states are dependent on fishing and tourism.
It has been estimated if the current trend continues, by the year 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean. The plastic waste crisis has also been exacerbated by the policy decision taken by China in January 2018 (China’s National Sword Policy) to stop importing plastic and other waste for recycling. This waste amounted to almost half the world’s recyclable waste, and countries now have to find alternative solutions for dealing with their waste.
Responding to crisis
Last year, in response to the current global situation, the Conference of the Parties to the Basel Convention established a new working group, the Plastic Waste Partnership Working Group (PWPWG). The Basel Convention is a global environmental treaty on hazardous and other wastes, and it seeks to control the transboundary movement of hazardous waste and its disposal. The objective of the new working group is “to improve and promote the environmentally sound management of plastic waste at the global, regional and national levels, and prevent and minimise their generation so as to, among other things, reduce significantly and in the long-term eliminate the discharge of plastic waste and microplastics into the environment, in particular, the marine environment”.
The first meeting of the PWPWG was held in Beau Vallon, Seychelles, from March 2-5. The meeting was hosted by the government of the Seychelles and was organised by the Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, and the Africa Institute for Environmentally Sound Management of Hazardous and Other Wastes as the Basel Convention Regional Centre for English-speaking countries in South Africa (BCRC South Africa).
Canada, Japan, Norway and Switzerland provided financial support for the meeting. Representatives from the Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA), the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) and the Basel Convention Regional Centre for Training and Technology Transfer for the Caribbean participated in the meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to make arrangements to operationalise and initiate the work of the partnership.
Key outcomes included the establishment of four project groups:
1. Plastic waste prevention and minimisation.
2. Plastic waste collection, recycling and other recovery, including financing and related markets.
3. Transboundary movement of plastic waste.
4. Outreach, education and awareness-raising, as well as the prioritisation of activities to be undertaken by each project group.
Photography contest on
A photography contest, which is open to the public, was launched during the workshop to promote outreach, education and awareness-raising on the global plastic waste crisis. Entries will be accepted in six categories:
1. Let’s go outside!—Plastic waste and nature.
2. Plastic waste and our health and livelihoods.
3. Tiny but everywhere: microplastics.
4. Let’s use it!—Plastic waste as a resource.
5. Let’s do it!—Solutions for avoiding single-use plastic products.
6. Let’s fix it!—Alternatives, new technologies and innovation.
The judging panel will include National Geographic photographer Sara Hylton, and three winners will be selected per category—one amateur adult, one professional adult and one child (under 18 years). The contest closes on September 30 and further details are available on the Basel Convention website: www.basel.int/Implementation/Plasticwaste/PlasticWastePartnership/Photocontest.
Although the plastic waste crisis requires global action, the problem is not insurmountable as the majority of land-based plastic pollution that ends up in our seas is due to poor waste collection and management. It is important for each of us to take action on a personal level and practise the 5Rs— reduce, refuse, reuse, recycle and remove plastic waste—in order to protect our environment. Our environment needs all the help it can get.