Discarded plastic, industrial waste and unwanted fishing nets are still a growing problem for the world’s oceans, despite decades of efforts to reduce such marine debris. However, a new set of commitments – set out during the recent Fifth International Marine Debris Conference – hope to encourage the sharing of technical, legal and market-based solutions to reduce marine debris.
One of the key findings of the conference was the need to improve waste management practices globally. It was said that improvements to national waste management programmes not only help reduce the volume of waste in the world’s seas and oceans, but can also bring real economic benefits.
The impacts of marine debris are far-reaching, with serious consequences for marine habitats, biodiversity, human health and the global economy. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), at least 267 marine species worldwide are affected by entanglement in, or ingestion of marine debris, including 86% of all sea turtle species, 44% of all seabird species and 43% of all marine mammal species.
There is also growing concern over the potential impact on human health of toxic substances released by plastic waste in the ocean. Scientists are studying whether contaminants linked to cancer and other health risks, which may accumulate on ‘microplastics’ can enter the food chain when ingested by marine animals. These microplastics comprise disintegrated plastic broken down by the sea into small particles, as well as plastic pellets used by industry.
Co-organised by UNEP and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and held in Honolulu, Hawaii, the conference saw major industries and leading marine researchers come together to make a new set of commitments to tackle the widespead problem.
According to UNEP, the commitment, dubbed the Honolulu Commitment, sees a new cross-sectoral approach to helping reduce the occurrence of marine debris. This would also reduce the extensive damage it causes to marine habitats, the global economy, biodiversity and the risks posed to human health.
It also marked the first step in the development of a comprehensive global platform for the prevention, reduction and management of marine debris, to be known as the Honolulu Strategy.
Waste management is one of ten economic sectors highlighted in UNEP’s recently published Green Economy Report. The report highlighted enormous opportunities for turning land based waste – the major contributor to marine debris – into a more valuable resource.
The Honolulu Strategy will outline several approaches for the reduction of marine debris, including prevention both on land and from sea-based sources, as well the need to see waste as a resource to be managed.
UNEP said it will also call for public awareness campaigns on the negative impacts of improper waste disposal on seas and oceans. This will target street litter, illegal dumping of rubbish and poorly-managed waste dumps.
United Nations under-secretary-general and UNEP executive director Achim Steiner, said: “The impact of marine debris today on flora and fauna in the oceans is one that we must now address with greater speed.”
Steiner added: “However, one community or one country acting in isolation will not be the answer. We need to address marine debris collectively across national boundaries and with the private sector, which has a critical role to play both in reducing the kinds of wastes that can end up in the world’s oceans, and through research into new materials.
“It is by bringing all these players together that we can truly make a difference.”