Towards an agreement to combat marine litter

Published: 13 September 2017 Author: Stefan Talmon

Germany considers marine litter to be one of the most pressing global environmental problems of our time. An estimated 140 million tonnes of waste are found in the oceans, with plastic packaging and plastic residues accounting for up to 75 percent of ocean waste. The Pacific Ocean is the most affected by marine litter with a “garbage patch” of some 700,00 km2, twice the size of Germany. Over 80 percent of marine litter has land-based sources. Plastic particles in the oceans affect all forms of marine life, from fish, cetaceans, corals, zooplankton, to sea birds. In addition, plastic waste affects cooling water and filtering systems in thermal power plants and desalination plants.

Germany has been one of the driving forces in combatting marine litter. Under Germany’s presidency, the Group of Seven countries (G7) in June 2015 adopted the “G7 Action Plan to Combat Marine Litter”. In their Summit Declaration the leaders of the G7 acknowledged that “marine litter, in particular plastic litter, poses a global challenge, directly affecting marine and coastal life and ecosystems and potentially also human health.”

On 30 March 2017, the Federal Parliament called upon the Government

“to agree measures against marine litter within the group of G20 countries. In addition, [the federal government] is to pursue the conclusion of an international convention which will regulate the flow of materials under national legislation within the framework of a recycling-based economy, in order to prevent the uncontrolled introduction of plastics into the environment.”

The leaders of the Group of 20 countries met in Hamburg on 7-8 July 2017. Under the German presidency, the G20 launched the “G20 Action Plan on Marine Litter”. The Action Plan provides inter alia:

“The G20 recognizes the urgent need for action to prevent and reduce marine litter in order to preserve human health and marine and coastal ecosystems, and mitigate marine litter’s economic costs and impacts. We stress the direct relationship between the challenge of marine litter, environment, human health, economic development, social well-being, biodiversity and food security. […]

We, the G20, will take action to prevent and reduce marine litter of all kinds, including from single-use plastics and micro-plastics. We thus reiterate our commitment to preventing and substantially reducing marine litter and its impacts by 2025 in support of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals and targets related to marine pollution, waste management, waste water treatment and sustainable consumption and production by putting into practice the following ‘G20 Operational Framework’ and the voluntary Global Network of the Committed (GNC). […].”

The Action Plan includes a helpful list of “conventions, programs and initiatives, actions plans and measures, and UN resolutions” which reflects the state of play with regard to dealing with marine litter. It reads as follows:

  • Barcelona Convention (Legally Binding Regional Plan on Marine Litter Management, 2013)
  • Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal
  • Bucharest Convention
  • CBD (2012): Report – “Impacts of Marine Debris on Biodiversity: Current Status and Potential Solutions” (CBD Technical Series No. 67)
  • CBD DECISION XIII/10 (2016): Addressing impacts of marine debris and anthropogenic underwater noise on marine and coastal biodiversity
  • EU Marine Strategic Framework Directive (Directive 2008/56/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 June 2008 establishing a framework for community action in the field of marine environmental policy)
  • G7-Presidencies (chronological order):
    • Germany (2015): G7 Action Plan to Combat Marine Litter
    • Japan (2016): G7 Ise-Shima Leaders’ Declaration Communique; G7 Toyama Environment Ministers’ Meeting; Tsukuba Communique G7 Science and Technology Minister’s Meeting in Tsukuba, Ibaraki; Tokyo Message on the Standardization and Harmonization of Marine Litter Monitoring from the 2016 Expert Workshop
    • Italy (2017): G7 Workshop on Marine Litter “Mainstreaming the work of the Regional Sea Programmes towards the better implementation of the G7 Action Plan and the achievement of the global commitments on marine litter”
  • G20 resource efficiency dialogue
  • Habitat III (2016): New Urban Agenda
  • Helsinki Convention (Regional Action Plan, 2015)
  • Honolulu Strategy (2011): Globally framing an Action Plan to prevent, reduce and manage marine litter
  • International coalition “Stop Plastic Waste” launched at COP22
  • International Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution from Ships, 1973 (MARPOL 73/78) and its revised Annex V
  • International Coral Reef Initiative
  • Manila Declaration (2012): Global Programme of Action – Marine Litter becoming an additional major component
  • OECD Guidelines on Extended Producer responsibility (update 2017)
  • OSPAR Convention (Regional Action Plan, 2014)
  • Rio + 20 Declaration (2013): “Significant reduction of marine litter until 2025”
  • UN SDG 14.1 (2015): “By 2025, prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution”
  • UNEA I (2014): Resolution on Marine plastic debris and microplastics
  • UNEA II (2016): Resolution on Oceans and Seas and on Marine Litter and microplastics
  • United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)

To this list may be added the 1972 London Dumping Convention. However, none of these conventions and documents adequately tackles the problem of marine litter.

On 11 September 2017, Chancellor Angela Merkel underlined the importance of new international agreements in combatting marine litter. She said:

“As far as littering [of the oceans] is concerned, we have put that on the agenda during our G20 presidency. We are trying, together with all international actors, to show that this is a decade-long drama for the fish, for the fauna and also for the plants in the oceans. We need international agreements here.”

The Federal Government considers a new legally binding global agreement necessary to prevent and reduce marine litter, in particular plastic waste. While the Federal Government is working towards this long-term goal it is realistic enough to recognize that this may not be achieved in the foreseeable future.

Category: International environmental law

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  • Stefan Talmon

    Stefan Talmon is Professor of Public Law, Public International Law and European Union Law, and Director at the Institute of Public International Law at the University of Bonn. He is also a Supernumerary Fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, and practices as a Barrister from Twenty Essex, London. He is the editor of GPIL.

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