In the last of a three-part series, Young New Zealander of the Year and CEO of the Sustainable Coastlines Charitable Trust ,Sam Judd, discusses the United Nations Environment Programs' Global Partnership on Marine Litter.
With a myriad of real and potential environmental issues that we face, those that are visible to the naked eye seem to get more traction with the public.
So although our sick waterways, silt, heavy metals, climate change and other usually-unseen pollution might be deemed to be the biggest challenge in front of us, it is perhaps not surprising that marine litter has engaged so many people around the world.
Out of the three topics discussed at the Global Conference on Land and Ocean Connectedness, which I recently attended, the marine litter section was far busier than wastewater and nutrient management.
This is not necessarily a more important issue than the others, but perhaps it is because you don't have to have a master's degree to realise that a polluted beach is not a good thing.
Maybe it is a reflection of the short-term boom and bust thinking that has caused so many of our environmental problems in the first place.
You see a dirty beach is quite clearly bad for tourism. In many places, such unsightly problems are literally exported to another place (out of sight, out of mind), but the long-term issues are much graver.
If we continue to increase our addiction to single-use convenience plastics, particularly in places where there is no infrastructure to manage the waste (developing countries are rapidly increasing their consumption of the stuff), it will continue to enter the ocean, killing the animals that tourists come to see in the first place and even worse - potentially poisoning the seafood that people need to survive.
By nature, marine litter is a global issue - much of what we allow to escape into the waterways and ocean will end up in international waters. Apart from providing approximately 85% of the worlds fish (which provides essential protein for over 1 billion people globally), no one country owns the international water space and so when it becomes polluted, it is impossible to direct responsibility to any particular polluter by then.
What we need is local solutions to this global issue.
Initiatives range from education programs focussed on behavioural change, to constructively working with the shipping industry, to significant investments in infrastructure.
There is also a place for legislation and although at Sustainable Coastlines we do not advocate for policy, I know from experience that there are certain people that are so stuck in their littering and unnecessary consumption habits that the only way they will change is if they are hit in the pocket with a fine enforced through the Litter Act or a tax on plastic bags.
For these solutions to scale up (which is incredibly urgent when you hear of the concentrations of litter that are now out there) those that function well must be shared through open-sourced platforms.
Enter the Global Partnership for Marine Litter (GPML), administered by the United Nations Environment Program.
Over 200 people, from 80 countries attended the conference and more than half were there to be apart of the GPML.
It was also encouraging to note that representatives from the plastics industry were also there and able to have constructive discussion on solutions, even if some of those solutions may threaten their profit margins.
So now we have an international forum to tackle this challenge, but only time will tell whether the determined collective will develop solutions fast enough to save our sick seas.
If anyone has ideas on what could be contributed to the global partnership, please leave a comment or email me.