Marine Plastic Litter and Recent Actions Taken Under the Basel Convention

Posted by on May 28, 2019


Marine plastic pollution is an emerging issue within the international community and is widely covered by the media. Plastic debris is the main source of shoreline pollution. A large percentage of plastic materials are found near popular tourist destinations and densely populated areas, especially within developing countries lacking waste management capacity and infrastructure.

However, plastics have been detected from the deep sea, on the sea floor and to the shorelines (including remote islands) of all six continents, even in the most remote parts of the Arctic and Antarctic oceans. This is because large and slowly degrading plastic items generate micro plastics (particles smaller than 1-5 mm) which spread over long distances through ocean surface circulation. These plastic fragments will persist for decades and possibly centuries, due to their high resistance to the natural degradation process in an aquatic environment. 

Adverse effects range from marine organisms and biodiversity, to human livelihood and the economy. In addition to the high economic costs associated with plastics pollution, in terms of cleaning marine debris from harbors and beaches to sustain tourism revenues, floating plastics and lost fishing gear decrease fish stocks and damage the propellers of fishing and recreational vessels. More importantly, hundreds of marine species are threatened by the ingestion of plastic fragments with adverse effects ranging from marine organisms and biodiversity, to entanglement and suffocation.

There are also major concerns about the accumulation in the food chain, of hazardous chemicals that gather on the surface of the plastics during the period they circulate in polluted oceans. (Florian Thevenon, ICUN Global Marine and Polar Programme, Gland Switzerland)

Amendments to the transboundary movement of plastic waste

In an effort to combat the issue of plastic marine litter, Parties to the Basel Convention (187 countries) recently adopted an amendment to the Annexes governing the transboundary movement of plastic waste. The amendment takes effect January 2021 and will require countries to seek and obtain approval prior to shipping plastic waste for recycling to other countries.

The amendment poses particular problems for U.S. companies, given that the United States is one of the only countries that is not a Party to the Convention, and is therefore prohibited from trading Basel controlled waste with other Basel Parties.

This initiative was proposed less than eight months ago by Norway and was adopted in record time, relative to other decisions historically adopted by the Convention. The Norwegian proposal to apply Basel controls to plastics enjoyed immense political momentum, given the threat that plastic pollution poses to the entire ecosystem that makes up the global commons.

However, like e-waste, the issue of plastic marine litter is complex and multi-disciplinary in nature. For example, e-waste has been on the Basel agenda for over ten years, with outputs including,

  • Technical guidelines,
  • Pilot projects,
  • Tool kits,
  • Fact sheets, and
  • Other deliverables from the Parties as a whole, and because of the Basel public-private Partnership on Computing Equipment that spanned eight years.

Many stakeholders within the international community, including a number of Basel Parties (EU included), organizations and NGOs, are celebrating this amendment as a huge victory in terms of combatting marine litter debris, by reducing the burden of mixed waste in less developed economies. They believe it will make global trade in plastic waste more transparent and better regulated, providing better protection to human health and the environment by promoting environmentally sound management.

However, concerns have been brought up that this multi-dimensional issue deserved a more measured and careful consideration with a longer-term view based upon sound metrics, prior to addressing it in the legal framework that constitutes this multilateral environmental agreement.  

Concerns regarding the amendments

Norway’s initiative failed to recognize that much of the plastic in the ocean today comes directly from sources on land, often reaching the ocean as runoff that moves improperly discarded trash from land to river and finally, the ocean. This is because many developing countries, especially in Southeast Asia, have poor waste management infrastructure. (World Bank, Indonesia Marine Debris Hotspot Rapid Assessment Synthesis Report, 2018).

Local infrastructure

This Basel amendment may unintentionally make it more difficult for developing countries to properly manage their plastic waste. This is due to the fact that small islands and developing states in particular, often lack the scale needed for recycling, and usually export recyclable materials. These regulations will make that more difficult to do this.

Ocean and river runoffs

Furthermore, the Basel initiative seems to ignore findings of scientists that analyzed plastic debris information from around the world. These scientists found that over a quarter of the plastic waste going into the ocean every year, likely comes from the runoff of just ten rivers.

These ten rivers that carry 93 percent of that trash (not solely plastic waste) are the Yangtze, Yellow, Hai, Pearl, Amur, Mekong, Indus and Ganges Delta in Asia, and the Niger and Nile in Africa. (Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Germany, 2017). This underscores the fact that despite the global population living near coastal areas; even those who live far from the sea contribute to ocean pollution when their waste gets into rivers that dump into the ocean.

Finally, there is a lack of data on plastic debris dumped by ships or swept out to sea during natural disasters, like a tsunami or hurricane. We could also use more information about the impact of the contaminants inherent in the structure of the plastics (plastic additives) and released during the degradation of the plastic in seawater.

The above seems to support the conclusions made by academics and scientists on the issue of marine plastics and marine litter in general. That in order to prevent plastics from entering the marine environment in the first place, it is vital to develop a better understanding of marine plastic sources and transport through increased monitoring data across countries.  

In 2012, UNEP launched the multi-stakeholder Global Partnership on Marine Litter (GPML), pursuant to the Honolulu Agreement. This group works toward the prevention and management of marine debris in general, and they recognized the multidimensional issues posed by marine litter debris. In fact two of its five objectives include,

  • Promoting knowledge management, information sharing and monitoring, and
  • Assessing emerging issues related to the fate and potential influence of marine litter.

This marine litter includes micro plastics uptake in the food web and associated transfer of pollutants and its impacts on the conservation.

The GPML also seeks to enhance international cooperation and coordination on marine litter to promote resource efficiency and economic development by,,

  • waste prevention e.g. 4Rs (reduce, re-use, recycle and re-design),
  • recovering valuable material and/or energy from waste; and
  • increasing awareness on sources of marine litter, their fate and impacts.

In addition to such cooperative efforts among countries and other stakeholders, in terms of information and data sharing, work should be conducted on the regional level. This might include Small Island Developing States since resources and infrastructure for waste disposal are inadequate in many of these developing countries.

On the national level, countries should be encouraged to develop plans to combat marine litter in general, such as the Action Plan released by Indonesia on Marine Plastic Debris for 2017-1019. It includes five components of improving behavior change,

  1. Reducing land-and-sea-based leakage,
  2. Reducing plastics production and use,
  3. Enhancing funding mechanisms,
  4. Enhancing policy reform, and
  5. Improving legislation enforcement.

(Governance Solutions to the Tragedy of the Commons, the Marine Plastics Have Become, Joanna Vince and Britta Hardesty, Marine Science, 2018).

On the community level, social networks can be harnessed to increase awareness and educate the public on the issues of plastic marine litter.

Further, the private sector needs to continue investments and expansions in advanced recycling and recovery systems (such as what is found in the United States and Europe) to enable the repurpose of more plastics into useful raw materials for new manufacturing.

Policies that recognize these investments and enable innovation are important given the complexity of marine litter debris and the host of public policy options available. Other important considerations in terms of engaging the private sector in terms of combatting marine litter include:

  • Encouraging them to design plastic products in a way that facilitates recovery. (This means fostering the development of new technologies),
  • Educating manufacturers and the public to prevent litter,
  • Expanding collection opportunities through recycling and energy recovery,
  • Developing new end markets that increase demand for recycled plastics, making them less likely to end up littered or in a landfill, ensuring plastics are properly managed at manufacturing sites, and
  • Continuing to encourage/fund community and beach clean-up to collect debris and useful data about pollution. (Plastics industry Association 2019).

This broad-brush look at plastic marine litter and its threat to our global commons, underscores the complexity of the issue. Marine plastic litter warrants a holistic and multi-dimensional approach on all levels (international, regional, local), and involving all stakeholders including governments, academia, international organizations, NGOs, the private sector and civil society. In this context, regulating shipments of plastics in a vacuum under the Basel Convention does not seem to support a sound holistic multi-disciplinary public policy strategy.

As part of the Basel plastics package, the Parties also launched a Basel Public-Private Partnership on Marine Litter Debris and Micro plastics. In our view, this Partnership is vital in terms of informing the policy makers. For example, it could be tasked with promoting data collection and analysis, developing guidelines on proper waste management and awareness raising. Such tasks would serve to better inform regulatory initiatives under the Convention.

Patricia Whiting is the Senior Policy Analyst for Sims Recycling Solutions (SRS). SRS is a global leader in IT asset disposal (ITAD) and e-Recycling services.

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