A Sea of Debris: Oceans Governance and the Challenge of Plastic Pollution

Few other materials can match the benefits of plastic – it is cheap to produce, it is impervious to water and has a high multipurpose use. While the boom in plastic production has benefited both manufacturers and consumers in terms of lower product costs, the global enchantment with this material has dramatic consequences. The world’s oceans are one of the many victims of plastic pollution. Although exact numbers remain difficult to procure, scientific estimates suggest that the global oceans contain more than 5.25 trillion plastic pieces, essentially turning them into a gigantic “plastic soup”. It is approximated that landfill waste accounts for over 80% of this pollution. The sources range from industrial production, shipping, general littering, and water system pollution.

In view of this staggering number, the need for a global response featured prominently during a two-day long conference on Oceans Governance hosted by The Hague Institute for Global Justice in late March. Seeing that plastic debris in the ocean does not respect state boundaries, effective global governance responses are required. Active collaboration between multiple stakeholders is indispensable in this context. However, the current legal framework on marine littering is insufficient. Adopting a comprehensive global governance strategy would therefore constitute a first important step in order to secure the future health of the oceans.

While everyone can agree that the esthetical consequences of marine littering are hideous – soiled beaches and clusters of oceanic plastic patches – the problem extends beyond that of displeasing visuals. The largest amount of marine plastic debris is located under the water surface. Microplastics, plastic particles smaller than 5mm in size, pose a threat to living organisms in the marine environment because they alter the maritime ecology and ecosystem functions. As fish and other animals ingest plastic particles, they accumulate and become part of the food chain. Marine debris thus ultimately constitutes a threat to food security – one of the dimensions of human security as defined by the United Nations Development Programme – which further stresses the need for immediate action.

The negative consequences related to marine debris is one of the reasons for why reducing marine pollution of all kinds is included in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals adopted in September 2015. In view of the various targets of Goal No. 14, which addresses specifically the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans, it becomes obvious that protection of the ocean as a common resource is a global responsibility. As for the international law dealing with the oceans in general, and with marine pollution in particular, the existing framework has potential, but is currently limited in its applicability. Main agreements include the London Dumping Convention and the MARPOL Convention, both of which deal with marine pollution and ocean dumping, and the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS). These treaties are mostly concerned with prohibiting vessel-sourced waste to enter the oceans, and only few articles explicitly refer to land-based pollution. Furthermore, even though the conventions impose duties and obligations on the parties, they also leave considerable opportunity for states to abdicate from this responsibility. For instance, states decide themselves what measures they can take in order to prevent pollution of the marine environment.

Although other intergovernmental responses, such as for instance the United Nations Environment Programme’s initiative Global Programme of Action of 1995, exist, not all of these are binding. The problem insufficient enforcement and monitoring mechanisms persists as a hindrance for compliance and subsequent improvement of the marine littering problem. The complexity of the marine debris issue – where it is coming from, whom it affects, and what its direct implications are, makes for a complicated case of domestic and international management. Due to the hitherto largely ‘invisible’ nature of the debris problem to the world’s public and policymakers, and the multiplicity of sources contributing to plastic pollution, efforts that have a global reach are difficult both to design, implement, and monitor. Arguably, international law cannot provide a sound solution to the marine littering problem alone. It must be supplemented by strong regional efforts.

The need for national governments to “reduce leakage of plastic into natural systems” though means of an integrated waste management is highlighted by the Global Ocean Commission. In their 2016 report, The Future of Our Ocean, the Commission stresses that prevention is crucial. Protection of the marine environment will be achieved through the creation of economic incentives favoring recycling and efficient productivity. Such a system would concern various actors, from national governments, to the private sector and other institutions. Cooperation efforts are imperative in order to ensure functional implementation.

Education represents another essential part in reaching a solution to the marine litter problem. The lack of public awareness about the consequences of unsustainable mass consumption practices and of how individual choices affect the environment is problematic. An example of an organization that actively emphasizes the engagement of the public is the research organization Algalita, which particularly focuses on environmental education of the youth. The importance of Algalita’s work is confirmed by The Honolulu Strategy, accompanied of a commitment signed by 37 states, which proposes a global framework on “improved collaboration among the multitude of stakeholders concerned with marine debris.” Although it provides only recommendations and not hard law, the strategy highlights the need for a multilayered engagement that includes the public.

Considering the severity and magnitude of the problem of marine debris, it is essential that this issue is taken seriously. A global commitment to action plans and regulations that prevent and reduce plastic waste pollution in the marine environment is needed. Such commitments must however be guided by a holistic understanding of the problem, as involvement of stakeholders on all levels is indispensable.



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