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UN Oceans Conference makes ‘call to action’ on ocean pollution

Decisive action to protect the oceans has been agreed by the 193 Member states of the United Nations (UN) following the Ocean Conference held last week in New York.

UN Oceans Conference makes ‘call to action’ on ocean pollution
The inaugural Ocean Conference held over five days, including World Oceans Day (8 June), at UN Headquarters brought together politicians, policy-makers, experts and stakeholders from across the globe to discuss how to deal with a range of issues facing the marine environment, from pollution to depletion of fish stocks, from ocean acidification to threatened coastal communities.

A full programme of events across the week included panel discussions, seminars, partnership dialogues and official meetings between those involved to advance thinking and collaboration on the issues discussed.

The outcomes of the conference were brought together in an outcome document, the ‘Call to Action’, comprising of 1,300 commitments to action and a call ‘to act decisively and urgently, convinced that our collective action will make a meaningful difference to our people, to our planet and to our prosperity.’

President of the UN General Assembly Peter Thomson, said: “The Ocean Conference has changed our relationship with the ocean. Henceforth none can say they were not aware of the harm humanity has done to the ocean’s health. We are now working around the world to restore a relationship of balance and respect towards the ocean.”

The International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) used the conference to launch a new Marine Litter Task Force that will aim to ‘establish and exemplify the fundamentally positive role sound management of waste and resources can have in the medium and long term towards mitigating and eventually resolving plastic marine pollution’.

ISWA President Antonis Mavropoulos said: “We need to understand the material flows, and combine them with material properties, exposures and risks: in short, we need to identify where the major leakages and hazards occur, and then prioritise fixing them, starting from the genuinely major ones. Open dumping of solid waste in rivers and waterways is, most possibly, a major pathway.”

The first conclusions and reports will be presented at the 2017 ISWA World Congress in September.

Call to Action

The Oceans Conference, which set the tone by discouraging delegates from bringing single-use plastic bottles to the venue, brought recognition from countries that the future prosperity and well-being of mankind is inextricably linked with the well-being of our oceans, and saw them offer a myriad of solutions to tackle the problems faced by the marine environment.

The ‘Call to Action’ document was formally adopted at the end of the Conference, affirming signatories’ commitment to reducing plastic and micro-plastic pollution, to developing and implementing effective measures to deal with ocean acidification, sea-level rise and increases in ocean temperatures, and to recognising the importance of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

UN Oceans Conference makes ‘call to action’ on ocean pollution
In addition, more than 1,300 commitments have been made by groups, states or individuals addressing the Sustainable Development Goal 14 – Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources.

These include the European Investment Bank’s commitment to support blue island states and the blue economy, and the commitment of several businesses as part of campaign group Ocean Unite’s ‘The Ocean is Everybody’s Business’ initiative to turn the economy ‘blue’ in a meeting chaired by businessman and philanthropist Richard Branson.

Other significant commitments include those to:

  • Ban single-use plastics;
  • Developing Mediterranean-specific protocols to protect biodiversity from litter impact;
  • Spread scientific insights on marine plastic pollution;
  • Step up efforts to reduce the amount of sewage and pollution deriving from land-based activity from entering the oceans; and
  • Expand scientific knowledge of the oceans.

Political and financial support needed to boost waste management systems

However, despite the broad range of commitments to clean up and protect the world’s oceans, Steve Russell, Vice-President of Plastics at the American Chemistry Council, suggested that more support must be provided to enable changes to be made, rather than just setting goals: “Experts agree: to stem the tide of marine debris, we must prevent land-based trash from reaching our oceans in the first place. We must do so urgently, with an initial focus on parts of the world where such systems are lacking.

“This includes reducing waste, improved collection and sortation, matched with the latest recycling and recovery technologies.

“While we congratulate the United Nations on its tremendous work this week to prioritise this important issue, we had hoped the outcomes would focus more on building political and financial support for improved waste management, or on deploying innovative recycling and energy recovery. Recommendations to instead ban or reduce the use of specific products may give the illusion of progress, but in fact don’t help us solve the bigger problem.

“People around the world rely on plastics in innumerable ways. Durable and lightweight, plastics are amazing materials that provide important societal benefits including energy and resource savings, preventing food waste, improved healthcare and consumer protection. But when plastics are improperly managed, their full sustainability benefits aren’t realised. Solutions require the cooperation of industry, civil society and other stakeholders to effect meaningful change.”

For more information on the conference and its outcomes, visit the UN’s Oceans Conference website.

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