The remote Galápagos islands offer a distressing reminder of the destructive power of our plastic addiction with horrifying images of iconic species struggling on rubbish-strewn shorelines that were for so long a byword for isolation and purity.
But Ecuador’s renowned islands also bear witness to what can be achieved when outrage is channelled into positive action. This is the central tenet of the UN Environment’s Clean Seas campaign, which has galvanized communities since its launch in February 2017.
Fifty-seven countries—from Argentina to Yemen—have joined, pledging to cut back on single-use plastics, protect national waters and encourage more recycling. The campaign now represents the world’s largest global alliance for combatting marine plastic pollution with commitments covering more than 60 per cent of the world’s coastlines.
It’s not just governments that have come on board. From shoppers refusing plastic-smothered goods to Internet influencers inspiring others to share their zero-waste lifestyles, a worldwide awakening has taken hold, and it’s spreading.
More than 100,000 people have taken the Clean Seas pledge to reduce their plastic footprint. Many use the hashtags #CleanSeas and #BeatPlasticPollution on Twitter and Instagram to urge others to follow their lead and cut single-use plastics from their lives.
Latin America and the Caribbean have been to the forefront of this global movement, and Ecuador is among 17 countries in the region that have joined the Clean Seas campaign.
"The countries and citizens of Latin America and the Caribbean are taking bold and exemplary steps to beat plastic pollution and protect their valuable marine resources,” said Leo Heileman, UN Environment’s regional director in Latin America and the Caribbean.
“Governments are regulating single-use plastics by passing several bans and citizens are taking action through massive clean-ups and campaigns. But we need more efforts from industry to find innovative alternatives to plastic,” said Heileman.
For the rare species on the Galápagos islands, 600 miles off Ecuador’s coast, this is a matter of life or death.
“We have seen pelicans, iguanas and sea lions caught in plastic bags, nets and ropes,” said Jorge Carrión, director of the Galápagos National Park. “When the plastic breaks down into microplastics, it can enter the food chain: the fish eat it and then human consumption could be affected.”
Island authorities have introduced laws to ban single-use plastic items, such as straws and bags. Volunteers and fishermen have helped clean remote beaches while waste management services have been reinforced.
Much of the waste that washes up on the Galápagos comes from other countries, illustrating the need for a global push against throwaway plastic.
On the other side of the world, India joined the Clean Seas campaign as it hosted World Environment Day last June, promising to eliminate all single-use plastics by 2022—a potentially game-changing move from a country of around 1.3 billion people.
Another plastic pioneer is Kenya, which joined the campaign in December 2017 and has also imposed one of the world’s toughest bans on plastic bags.
Other notable Clean Seas commitments include:Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and one of the world’s top 10 plastic polluters, has pledged to open 26 major plastic recycling plants. Sweden pledged roughly US$1 million in support for UN Environment’s work on marine plastic. Vanuatu, which joined the campaign last year, became the first country in the world to ban plastic straws in May. Panama banned polyethylene bags in early 2018. Costa Rica has adopted a national strategy to drastically reduce the use of disposable plastics by 2021. Belize, Bahamas, Bermuda and Jamaica have passed or are drafting laws to eradicate single-use plastics. Last May, Chile became the first South American country to approve a nationwide ban on single-use plastic bags. The ban came into force this year for major retailers. Australia, which joined in October, pledged that 100 per cent of its packaging would be reusable, compostable or recyclable by 2025 and unnecessary single-use packing would be phased out through design, innovation or introduction of alternatives. Brazil, a member of the campaign since September 2017, is working with UN Environment and partners on a National Action Plan on Marine Litter. Last November, a public consultation on this topic was launched.
National authorities are not the only ones showing leadership. In August, the city of Tijuana in Mexico became the first Mexican city on the border with the United States to approve a ban on disposable plastic bags. Several other states and cities, including Querétaro, have also banned plastic bags, even though Mexico has not joined the Clean Seas campaign officially.
Individuals can also make a difference: in Kenya, entrepreneurs and volunteers built a traditional dhow out of recycled plastic and flip flops to dramatically illustrate how wasteful it is to discard plastic. The flamboyant Flipflopi set off from the island of Lamu in January and sailed to Zanzibar, stopping at towns and cities along the way to spread a #plasticrevolution.
UN Environment has harnessed the power of social media to encourage such actions. Ahead of World Environment Day last year, it encouraged people to join a global game of #BeatPlasticPollution tag and share what plastic items they were willing to give up.
To extend this digital conversation, UN Environment released a short film in time for Valentine’s Day last year, urging viewers to “Break-Up” with plastic by, for example, using refillable water bottles and carrying reusable bags. It was viewed around 3.4 million times. A follow-up film was produced in December and had 5 million views.
The Clean Seas campaign also launched a “Back to School Plastic Challenge” alongside the German animation studio Kurzgesagt to encourage schools and youth groups to find creative ways to reduce or eliminate single-use plastics. Kurzgesagt produced an explanatory video comparing our modern plastic scourge to the legend of King Midas, who learned to rue his power to turn everything he touched to gold.
The world of sport has embraced the Clean Seas campaign, turning a host of events into rallying calls for action. In January, China’s Xiamen road race became the first international marathon to join the campaign, with organizers pledging to reduce plastic waste by 60 per cent.
Organizers of the gruelling 2017/18 Volvo Ocean Race reduced plastic use in their race villages in 12 cities across six continents, working with suppliers and local businesses to recycle any material used. Water refill points meant around 388,000 single-use plastic bottles were not used and some 20,000 people took the Clean Seas pledge.
Meanwhile, the young team on the Turn the Tide on Plastic yacht kept the Clean Seas message front-and-centre as they competed in the round-the-world race. Skippered by Briton Dee Caffari, they also collected data from remote oceans, measuring, among other things, levels of microplastic pollution.
In August last year, endurance swimmer Lewis Pugh completed his epic record-breaking swim along the length of the English Channel to raise awareness of the need to do more to protect our oceans from threats such as plastic pollution, overfishing and climate change.
Businesses also have a role to play, particularly in leading moves towards a circular global economy that eschews the old take-make-waste model. The growing public outcry for more sustainable practices can no longer be ignored and the economic rationale for inaction is increasingly seen as false.
From innovators seeking alternatives to plastic to conglomerates pledging to make their packaging easier to recycle, the only limit is imagination. Some of these groundbreaking ideas will be up for discussion at the fourth UN Environment Assembly in Kenya in March. The motto for that meeting is to think beyond prevailing patterns and live within sustainable limits.
The Clean Seas campaign has sparked a global revolution in how we view and use plastic. But much remains to be done and time is not on our side. There is no silver-bullet solution and plastic pollution cannot be neutralized by one sector of society or a single country.
For Jorge Carrión, director of the Galápagos National Park, our gigantic plastic problem requires action from us all.
“Often we blame businesses and we do not assume our own responsibility for buying plastics and then failing to recycle them,” he said. “These campaigns (like Clean Seas) help to raise awareness among people but it is also necessary to raise awareness among decision makers to adopt regional and sectional policies with greater reach.”
Ahead of the United Nations Environment Assembly next March, UN Environment is urging people to Think Beyond and Live Within. Join the debate on social media using #SolveDifferent to share your stories and see what others are doing to ensure a sustainable future for our planet.