Now is time to take action against plastic pollution killing world’s oceans
OUR oceans are a mess. It is estimated that there is now more than150 million tonnes of plastic in the world’s oceans. About
12.2 million tonnes enters annually.
This plastic is ingested by dozens of species of marine mammals and birds, and degrades vital habitats. Millions of birds, sea mammals and turtles die each year from eating and getting tangled in plastic waste.
In many regions, one in three fish caught contains pieces of plastic, while 51 species of African fish are nearing extinction. It is one of the great environmental scourges of our time.
Countering the immense challenges of ocean pollution will take big bold international actions from governments and small personal actions from citizens. Both need to happen, and quickly.
Next week, President Cyril Ramaphosa will lead South Africa’s delegation to the Commonwealth Summit in London. He will join British Prime Minister Theresa May and 52 other heads of government and leaders of the Commonwealth nations.
A major priority will be deepening their collective commitment to sustainable development of our oceans.
Closer to home, a coalition of environmental and community activists, led by UN Oceans
Patron Lewis Pugh will gather to collect rubbish on Khayelitsha’s Monwabisi beach today. We will seek to demonstrate our commitment – as community members, citizens and advocates – to tackling the threat that ocean pollution poses to all who live by, enjoy, are fed by and make a living from the sea.
Capetonians, like the British, are never far from the ocean.
South Africa’s 3 000km coastline is some of the most important (and beautiful) anywhere in the world. Already a major source of jobs, food and enjoyment Operation Phakisa rightly identifies your oceans’ huge potential for future economic growth, employment, energy and social development.
But in South Africa and across the globe there is a sharpened awareness that to release the potential we must treat this vital asset with greater respect. Economic development must be sustainable.
This is now formally recognised by the UN in Sustainable Development Goal 14.1 – to prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution.
How to approach the problem? Plastic shopping bags do not respect national boundaries. This is a thoroughly international challenge that needs international solutions. Many organisations are accelerating their efforts, including the UN, G7 and G20 and regional initiatives such as the Indian Oceans Rim Association (which South Africa chairs).
It is why the Commonwealth – 46 of its 53 members are ocean states – has placed oceans sustainability high on its agenda. The Summit’s “Blue Charter” will seek to facilitate greater co-operation between members in advancing existing and new ocean-related commitments and furthering sustainable blue economic development.
The Summit looks to establish a Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance – a group of like-minded countries which will work together to achieve the UN goals by reducing the amount of plastic used in producing goods and services, and improving the way in which plastic waste is managed.
They will also commit to taking action towards banning microbeads in cosmetic products and significantly reducing the prevalence of single-plastic carrier bags by 2021. Policy commitments of this kind can make big differences; a UK decision to place a 5 pence levy on plastic shopping bags in 2015 has led to 9 billion fewer of them. Kenya has pursued an outright ban.
The majority of waste in the sea originates from the land. Africa is the second most littered continent on the planet – it is estimated that about 80% of the waste generated in municipal areas enters the seas, through rivers and the continent’s 30 500km coastline.
Single-use plastics – bottles, straws, forks, etc – together with rope and netting, are the most abundant type of marine litter. As individuals we are the ultimate consumers of plastics. Many of the products we use, often only for a moment, can linger in the oceans for centuries; a water bottle can take 450 years to degrade in the sea.
Capetonians have rethought how they use water, changed their behaviour and cut overall consumption in half. Let us all rethink how we use plastic, particularly single-use items. By changing our behaviour to be smarter, leaner plastic consumers, choosing alternatives, disposing of waste intelligently, and influencing others to do likewise we can make a tangible contribution to ensure the oceans we cherish can be sustained.
At our beach clean in Monwabisi today we will be joined by over 100 young surfers from Khayelitsha who have passed through the
Waves For Change surf-therapy programmes. Local boys and girls who are learning to love the sea as a place of healing, enjoyment and potential future livelihood. We – governments, businesses or citizens – can’t leave their generation to clean up our mess.
Roman is the British Consul General in Cape Town.