“Our world is swamped by harmful plastic waste. Microplastics in the seas now outnumber stars in our galaxy. From remote islands to the Artic, nowhere is untouched. If present trends continue, by 2050, our oceans will have more plastic than fish. The message is simple: reject single use plastic. Refuse what you can't reuse. Together, we can chart a path to a cleaner, greener world,” said United Nations Secretary General António Guterres.
Seventy to eighty-five per cent of marine litter in the Caribbean Sea comes from land, and most of it consists of plastics. Together with agrochemical run-off and domestic wastewater, it is one of three priority pollutants for the wider Caribbean region.
Governments are taking note. Throughout the region, many have banned, or are considering bans on single-use plastics, including plastic bags and Styrofoam.
Antigua and Barbuda led the charge in 2016 with a five-phased approach to getting rid of plastics. Following extensive consultation with stakeholders, they decided to incorporate the ban into existing legislation rather than create new laws. They then ran the campaign “Make a difference one bag at a time”, and listed government-approved alternatives such as bagasse. As a result of these actions, the proportion of plastic dumped at landfills declined from 19.5 per cent in 2006 to 4.4 per cent in 2017.
The momentum continues. More than 18 territories have banned single-use plastics or Styrofoam products, while three countries have introduced bans at local levels, two have announced bans to begin in 2020 and 2021, 14 are discussing it within government and four have begun public consultations.
The environmental, social and economic impacts of plastics in the environment are well known: waterways get choked and flood more often, and sewage systems become clogged, providing breeding grounds for mosquitoes and raising the risk of transmission of waterborne diseases like dengue; plastics enter the food chain through contaminated soil and water; and visual pollution impacts tourism and recreational activities.
As our awareness of its effects increases, however, the convenience of plastic seems less and less attractive. Several awareness campaigns have sprung up in the past few year, calling governments and citizens to action.
Clean Seas—a global call to fight marine litter
In February 2017, UN Environment launched the Clean Seas campaign to engage governments, the public, civil society and the private sector in the fight against marine plastic litter. Clean Seas addresses the root cause of marine litter by targeting the production and consumption of non-recoverable and single-use plastics.
By April 2019, 60 governments (including nine in the Caribbean) accounting for more than 60 per cent of the world’s coastline, had signed up to #CleanSeas. Many have made commitments to protecting oceans, encouraging recycling and cutting back on single-use plastics, while a few have created marine reserves and adopted national plans on recycling and waste management.
Cartagena Convention Secretariat—a framework for action and tracking progress
As the Secretariat to the Cartagena Convention, the only legally binding environmental agreement in the Region, UN Environment’s Caribbean Environment Programme supports the implementation of the Land-Based Sources of Marine Pollution Protocol and the Caribbean Regional Action Plan for Marine Litter (RAPMaLI). This includes support for national and regional marine litter projects as well as promoting national policy and legal reforms.
In addition to a wide variety of communication activities, the Caribbean Environment Programme created in 2018 an interactive map to track progress.
Getting down to communities—trash-free waters international partnership
In 2017, UN Environment’s Caribbean Environment Programme entered into a partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Peace Corps and UN Environment’s Regional Office for Latin America to launch the Trash Free Waters Initiative. The partnership, first piloted in Panama and Jamaica, aims to reduce and prevent land-based trash from entering watersheds, coastal waters and the Caribbean Sea. In Jamaica, the initiative focuses on recycling, community awareness and education while in Panama activities include solid waste management, pollution prevention and waste separation.
Lessons from this project have been incorporated into national and regional efforts coordinated by the Secretariat. The report and lessons learned, including from the private sector partnership, will be presented at the upcoming 18th Intergovernmental Meeting and 15th Conference of Parties to the Cartagena Convention in June 2019 in Honduras.
The linkages made with other government programmes that address solid waste management and the promotion of partnerships between civil society and the private sector in both countries are the most significant aspects of these initiatives. The timing is right for both replication and upscaling through the rest of the wider Caribbean region.
Supporting global efforts on marine litter
The Global Partnership on Marine Litter is a multi-stakeholder partnership that was launched at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development Rio+20 in June 2012. It brings together actors working on marine litter to share knowledge and experience and to advance solutions to this global issue. In the Caribbean, the focus has been on reducing the quantity and impact of marine litter in coastal zones.
Marine litter is a problem that we can solve with commitment and joint action, stresses Christopher Corbin, Programme Officer for the Pollution Programme at the Secretariat. “Results from global and regional research on marine litter and plastics is clear,” he says. “Action is now needed at all levels—by governments, by private industry and most of all by local communities and individuals.”