Expert Group Addresses Options for Combating Marine Litter, Microplastics
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The first meeting of the Ad Hoc Open-ended Expert Group on Marine Litter and Microplastics convened in response to a resolution adopted at the third session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-3).

Participants considered discussion papers on barriers to combating marine litter and microplastics; national, regional and international response options; on the feasibility and effectiveness of different response options; and potential options for continued work.

2 June 2018: The first meeting of the Ad Hoc Open-ended Expert Group on Marine Litter and Microplastics exchanged views on the barriers to combating marine litter and microplastics and considered the work of existing mechanisms addressing this issue, including a new global governance structure. Participants agreed to finalize the Co-Chairs’ summary of the meeting within the next two weeks.

The Ad Hoc Open-ended Expert Group was established in 2017 under resolution 3/7 on marine litter and microplastics, adopted at the third session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-3). The resolution mandated the Expert Group to meet not more than twice before the next UNEA in order to: explore all barriers to combating marine litter and microplastics, including in developing countries; identify a range of response options and the costs and benefits of these options; and identify potential options for continued work for consideration by UNEA. Over 270 delegates attended the Expert Group meeting, which convened at the UN Office in Nairobi, Kenya, from 29-31 May 2018. It was preceded by a preparatory meeting of Major Groups and stakeholders.

Participants considered a discussion paper on barriers to combating marine litter and microplastics, including challenges related to resources in developing countries (UNEP/AHEG/2018/1/2). Noting that the discussion document contains over 80 barriers, Canada proposed, supported by the US, identifying between 10 and 20 of the most pressing obstacles to consider targeted responses. Japan and Singapore called for adopting harmonized assessment and monitoring methodology. Malawi said there is need for more attention to upstream activities and inland countries as sources of marine plastics. Drawing attention to the European Union’s proposal of rules to target 10 single-use plastic products most prevalent on Europe’s beaches and seas, as well as ghost fishing gear, the EU highlighted: the absence of a broadly agreed methodology to assess sources of litter and microplastics; the lack of a comprehensive approach to managing microplastics; and discrepancies in policies related to plastics production, management and disposal.

Peru highlighted the lack of information on the chemical composition of plastics exported to end-user countries and called for a lifecycle analysis of alternatives to plastics to prevent negative unintended consequences to human health and the environment. Spain called for more information on the effects of microplastics on the environment and human health.

Germany, supported by the Seychelles, stressed the need for a harmonized policy response focused on existing mechanisms, including regional seas organizations, and urged addressing the gaps in science and regulation within these mechanisms. Switzerland preferred a focus on the relationship between governance and existing barriers, the role of existing mechanisms and instruments, and how to address geographic governance gaps. Mauritania called for an international conference to develop an internationally legally binding instrument to address marine litter and microplastics.

Canada is using its Group of Seven (G7) presidency to campaign for a zero-plastic-waste charter, building on goals to have 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging.

The meeting then considered the discussion paper on national, regional and international response options, including actions and innovative approaches, and voluntary and legally binding governance strategies and approaches (UNEP/AHEG/2018/1/3). The paper categorizes the responses as follows: legal and policy responses, including management of single-use plastics at the national level, Regional Seas Programmes, and establishing a new global voluntary or binding mechanism; technological responses, including research and development of alternatives and regional cooperation on waste management; economic responses, including incentivizing the development and use of alternatives; and educational and informational responses, including regional awareness raising and capacity development programmes. Denmark, Switzerland and the EU said the status quo option is not acceptable. Canada said it is using the Group of Seven (G7) presidency to campaign for a zero-plastic-waste charter, building on goals to have 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging.

Fiji stressed the need to demonstrate political will by elaborating an internationally legally binding instrument on marine litter and microplastics. Iran said since combating marine litter and microplastics is an urgent issue, then a new legally binding instrument is not the solution due to the time it takes to negotiate a new instrument, citing the 13-year negotiations towards a legally binding instrument under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) on use of biological diversity in the high seas. Spain noted that although existing mechanisms are already addressing certain aspects of waste management, citing the efforts of the Basel Convention, Stockholm Convention, and the Regional Seas Conventions, there is a need for an overall global instrument to better coordinate efforts to address marine litter and alternatives to plastics. Stressing that the solution to addressing marine litter requires global and transboundary action, Liberia noted that UNCLOS only addresses some aspects of pollution in the protection of the marine environment. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) informed delegates that the next session of the Committee on Fisheries will discuss guidelines for minimizing abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear.

Delegates also addressed the discussion paper on environmental, social and economic costs and benefits of different response options (UNEP/AHEG/2018/1/4). Switzerland, with Iran, Norway and Peru, said the cost of inaction is always higher than the cost of response actions. Denmark called for a more detailed quantitative analysis in order to better understand the options. The Netherlands said where data is deficient, the precautionary principle should be applied since marine resources are a common heritage for mankind. Greece supported applying the precautionary principle noting that the health impacts of microplastics will multiply if nothing is done. Brazil, supported by Greece, said combating marine litter would have co-benefits for addressing other marine pollutants.

Bangladesh noted that alternatives to plastic carrier bags are proving to be more expensive and are thus not a choice by most consumers. The US said studies have shown that the price for alternatives to some plastics can be as high as four times, and noted that some alternatives also contain harmful substances.

The Expert Group further considered the discussion paper on feasibility and effectiveness of different response options (UNEP/AHEG/2018/1/5) and options for continued work. Delegates agreed to hold a second meeting in November 2018, with the exact venue and dates to be determined by the Secretariat.

A Chair’s Summary will be finalized within two weeks of the closure of this meeting to allow delegations to provide feedback. [IISD RS Meeting Coverage] [IISD RS Meeting Summary]


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