Marine environmental protection is one of the areas that regressed during the pandemic and calls for immediate action. The United Nations observed the 14th World Oceans Day on June 8th, emphasising the need for all stakeholders to act collectively to protect the ocean.
Growing threat of marine plastic debris
Global pandemic responses have intensified marine environmental problems, particularly marine plastic debris. The pandemic has seen the surge in the use of medical protective equipment and plastic packaging, with most plastic waste ending up in the ocean. Studies estimate that marine plastic debris will quadruple by 2050 without effective intervention.
The impacts of marine plastic pollution are wide-ranging and far-reaching. Marine plastic debris severely destroys the marine ecosystem and subsequently threatens the food safety and security of people relying on the ocean for food. Each year, economic loss caused by marine plastic pollution can reach up to US$330 billion. Moreover, marine plastics contribute to climate change, as the breaking-down process of plastics releases greenhouse gases. Combatting marine plastic debris is therefore part of the broader climate action.
Action by different stakeholders
Given the complex nature of marine plastic pollution, solution to the challenge should be multi-pronged. Progress has been made in establishing the policy and legal frameworks for plastic waste management. The UN Environment Assembly adopted the resolution in March 2022, which announced the establishment of an intergovernmental negotiating committee to deliver a legally binding instrument by 2024 to end plastic pollution.
In Southeast Asia, ASEAN adopted the Bangkok Declaration on Combating Marine Debris in ASEAN Region in 2019 and launched the Regional Action Plan (2021-2025) in 2021. Indonesia and Thailand, major contributors of marine plastic debris, implemented national policies to reduce consumption of single-use plastic products.
In addition to national governments and inter-governmental organisations, the scientific community and the private sector have essential roles to play by providing technological expertise and financing schemes. Technology-based solutions have been developed to improve tracking, monitoring and processing plastic waste. Better waste management infrastructure is essential as land-based waste is a primary source of marine plastic debris, but financing is a constant constraint on improving the infrastructure, with current financing only meeting a small portion of the actual needs. Private capital is a major source of financing to fill in the gap.
Building back better through transformation
Apart from better waste management, the shift towards circular economy has been extensively discussed as part of the solution to the marine plastic crisis. The circular economy model means minimising the disposal of waste and the need for raw materials through reducing, reusing, recycling, refurbishing, and remanufacturing materials in production, distribution, and consumption.
The shift already started in South-east Asia, as ASEAN adopted the Framework for Circular Economy for the ASEAN Economic Community on 18 October 2021. Singapore and Indonesia have launched their masterplan or roadmap towards circular economy, with minimising waste disposal and improving waste management as core components of their national actions.
However, this shift will be a long process and not without resistance. Restriction over the use of single-use plastic products will inevitably increase business costs and require behavioral changes of consumers. To seek public understanding and cooperation, awareness-raising and incentives are necessary at the initial phase. Civil society groups are well placed to facilitate changes given their connection with communities.
As countries are looking to build back better after COVID-19, it is important that marine environmental protection features strongly in the recovery plans, as the issue has critical bearing on people’s well-being, national development and the global climate action. A multi-stakeholder approach diversifies the sources of contributions and addresses different dimensions of the challenge.