Ocean Plastic Pollution: A Survey of Existing Global Agreements and Proposals for Reform

Plastics present a relatively new and significant threat to the marine environment. Production and use of plastics has increased globally in the past decades, and much of it ends up adrift in the ocean. The impact of this marine plastic pollution is far-reaching. Plastic in the ocean does not biodegrade; rather, it breaks down again and again into microplastics, makes its way into the guts of fish, shellfish, turtles, and birds, and into the food we consume.

Recently, the issue of ocean plastics has been brought to the forefront of public attention. Local and national efforts across the globe have taken off, many of which including both public and private actors. While these efforts need to continue to expand, this collective action problem requires global action. However, there is a lack of robust, effective global instruments needed to address the magnitude problem of marine plastic pollution.

Compiled here are the existing international and regional instruments, with both state and non-state parties, that directly or indirectly address marine plastic pollution. Many of these instruments, like MARPOL or the London Convention, focus solely on sea-based pollution—pollution that originates from ships that dump waste overboard, or that become adrift during ocean activities. But the majority of marine plastic pollution is not sea-based; much of it originates from land, swept into the ocean from coasts or rivers. And many of the agreements that do address land-based pollution, like the Basel Convention, do not explicitly cover plastics. Other international instruments, like UNCLOS, the Washington Declaration of the Global Programme of Action, address pollution of marine environments generally and could cover plastics if interpreted in a certain way. Still other instruments, like the Honolulu Strategy, may provide frameworks and guidance for addressing ocean plastics, but may not be sufficiently robust to ensure progress is made.

Authors: Sara Savarani & Bryce Rudyk


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