UN Lends Weight to Ocean Pollution Problem to Advance the Circular Economy

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Photo credit: Race for Water/Christophe Launay

Ocean pollution has become a pressing issue this year—and the UN’s latest efforts to protect marine animals and support recycling could help apparel companies switch to a more circular economy.

Last week, the UN Environment Assembly held a major summit in Nairobi, Kenya, where roughly 2.5 million businesses, civil society, governments and officials pledged to clean up the planet’s air, land and oceans.

At the summit, environmental ministers issued their first-ever declaration at a UN Environment Assembly targeting ocean pollution through collective measures, moving society toward a more eco-conscious lifestyle, boosting sustainability research and enforcing laws to reduce humanity’s carbon footprint. The declaration said nations would work together to prevent and reduce ocean pollution, which harms the health of ecosystems and humans over time.

To support the declaration, the assembly also passed three decisions and 13 non-binding resolutions, including a move to address marine litter and microplastics ocean pollution.

In the ocean pollution resolution, the UN noted how key sectors, including the consumer goods industry, plastic producers and retailers played a crucial role in minimizing ocean pollution derived from their activities and products. The UN said it’s key for these sectors in particular to strengthen transparency about their waste management efforts and onboard consumers to take part in the circular economy with things like clothing take back programs, and advocating for less consumption.

In addition to these sustainability measures, four nations, including Chile, Oman, South Africa and Sri Lanka pledged to the UN Environment’s CleanSeas campaign. The CleanSeas campaign is a collective global effort to curb ocean pollution over the next few years with various environmental efforts, including marine life preservation and waste management programs. As new members of the campaign, these nations announced new environmental steps, including increasing recycling, banning plastic bags and establishing new marine reserves.

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Sri Lanka will enforce a ban on single-use plastic products from Jan. 1, step up plastic waste management nationwide and set a goal of making its coasts “pollution-free” by 2030. Chile, which is a major destination for outdoor enthusiasts, is forming laws to hold producers responsible for their ocean pollution contributions and the nation’s cities are prohibiting plastic bags. South Africa is also stepping up its domestic environmental efforts—boosting its beach cleanup program and prioritizing action on plastic packaging items.

[Read more on ocean pollution: Report: Our Oceans Are Drowning in Pollution From Synthetics]

“For too long, we have treated the ocean as a bottomless dumping ground for plastic, sewage and other waste,” head of UN Environment Erik Solheim said. “The countries supporting CleanSeas are showing the leadership we need in order to end this abuse, and protect the marine resources on which millions depend for their livelihoods.”

By working together on positive environmental practices, the UN said 480,000 km (approximately 30 percent) of the planet’s coastlines will be clean—and $18.6 billion in scientific initiatives and programs will be available to combat global environmental issues.

These collaborative efforts reflect the UN Environment’s ongoing sustainability goals for 2020, which are working to curb ocean pollution and other environmental dangers. Over the next three years, the UN Environment aims to find sustainable ways to protect coastal ecosystems and marine life, minimizing the negative effects of ocean acidification, effectively terminating overfishing and other naturally destructive practices and conserving at least 10 percent of coastal and marine areas worldwide.

“The science we have seen at this assembly shows we have been so bad at looking after our planet that we have very little room to make more mistakes,” said Dr. Edgar Gutiérrez, Minister of Environment and Energy of Costa Rica and the president of the 2017 UN Environment Assembly. “With the promises made here, we are sending a powerful message that we will listen to the science, change the way we consume and produce, and tackle pollution in all its forms across the globe.”

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