The effort is both urgent and extremely challenging.
United Nations delegates have a lot on the agenda next week as they gather in Nairobi to explore ways to achieve a pollution-free planet.
Some of the issues include figuring out how to reduce soil pollution and how to shield landscapes from the ravages of armed conflict.
One issue, however, dwarfs the others — plastic pollution in the oceans.
And the UN is considering tackling this problem at the root by drafting an all-out ban on plastic ocean waste, according to the BBC.
“There are many questions to be solved,” a source in the discussion told the BBC. “Should there be a legally binding instrument prohibiting plastic from the land?
“If not, what other sort of overarching action should there be? We are grappling with this huge issue in its early stages,” the person said.
The effort is both urgent and extremely challenging, according to the UN, but it shows that the will to act is there.
“It’s an extremely positive move,” John Hourston, Founder of Blue Planet Society. “It puts marine plastic right up there with climate change and nuclear weapons and all the other things we have a global agreement for, so it means it’s seen as a global threat, and that in itself is incredible.”
Each year, an estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the oceans, which is like emptying a garbage truck of plastic into an ocean every minute
Growing awareness of this problem has spawned an industry dedicated to recovering plastic and turning it into products such as skateboards, sunglasses, and running shoes.
It has also inspired activists to conduct ocean clean-up campaigns. For example, a young Dutch entrepreneur is working on a massive system in the Pacific Ocean to clean up what is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In India, a young lawyer enlisted hundreds of volunteers to clean up nearly 12 million pounds of trash from a beach.
And governments are enacting more sweeping changes. Countries such as Kenya, Morocco, Zimbabwe, and France are banning different types of plastic.
But these campaigns haven’t been able to address the underlying problem — the global production of plastic and faulty waste management systems.
The UN’s proposal, according to people who spoke with the BBC, would attempt systemic change. Turning the proposal into lasting action may be challenging, Hourston of the Blue Planet Society said.
“It appears to be symbolic,” he said. “Any international agreement, whether it be on climate or nuclear weapons is fairly hard to implement.”
Similar to the Paris climate agreement, the ban would start out small, the BBC reports, by getting countries to better track the scale of plastic pollution in their countries, formalizing beach clean-up systems, and ending the disposal of fishing nets and gear into oceans.
Through country-wide tracking programs, the UN could develop a better understanding of where, why, and how much plastic is entering the oceans. Better systems for stopping plastic waste could then be developed.
Encouraging countries to conduct beach cleanups would be another easy and effective win, because a lot of plastic breaks down into microplastic on beaches before being lifted by waves into the water, the BBC notes.
Banning boats from dumping fishing gear would cut down on the number of marine animals who get caught in nets and die.
The proposal has widespread support, according to the BBC, because plastic waste in the oceans has become such an obvious problem.
Some countries, however, could water down the effort, the BBC notes. For instance, China is the biggest producer of plastic waste and may not want to limit domestic industries. Without China, Hourston said, the agreement “may be pointless.” The US, meanwhile, has historically been reluctant to sign onto global agreements.
The UN has already called for an end to plastic waste in the oceans by 2025, but this latest push could accelerate that timeline.
Either way, growing awareness of the problem is making action more feasible.
As Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment, said earlier in the year:
“It is past time that we tackle the plastic problem that blights our oceans. Plastic pollution is surfing onto Indonesian beaches, settling onto the ocean floor at the North Pole, and rising through the food chain onto our dinner tables. We’ve stood by too long as the problem has gotten worse. It must stop.”