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New ‘plastics treaty’ needed to clean up our oceans

The development of a ‘plastics treaty’ which bans oil-based plastics is needed to clean up our oceans, according to environmental law experts.

Plastic at the bottom of the ocean with boat
Plastic enters the oceans through land-based sources

Professor Elizabeth Kirk, director of the Centre for Marine Ecological Resilience and Geological Resources (MERGeR) at Nottingham Law School, and Dr Naporn Popattanachai, director of the Centre for Natural Resources and Environmental Law at Faculty of Law, Thammasat University, have analysed why current national and international law has failed to prevent the abundance of rubbish in the oceans from land-based sources.

From plastic bags, to toothbrushes and plastic nurdles, plastic enters the oceans through, for example, discharges or dumping in rivers, from waste dumped on land blowing into watercourses, and from landfill sites which have been built too close to the coastline and are damaged by storms.

Elizabeth Kirk, Professor of Environment Law, said: “That this is happening may seem odd given that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea requires States to adopt laws and procedures to manage marine pollution from land-based activities. However, only some States have adopted national legislation to tackle this problem. Kenya, for example, has banned the production, import, export and use of single use plastic bags. Other countries have adopted less stringent measures, such as the UK’s levy on the use of single use plastic bags.

“This raises the question of why more is not being done at the State level and what exactly international law requires of States in relation to marine plastics pollution from land-based pollution.”

In the paper Marine plastics: Fragmentation, effectiveness and legitimacy in international lawmaking,Professor Kirk and Dr Popattanachai argue that the current legal developments on the regulation of marine plastic pollution are too patchy and subject to different standards of behaviour.

Professor Kirk added: “Improved recycling is frequently touted as the solution but there are a number of issues with this. The increase in recycling that would be necessary to tackle this problem is significant and would have to be accompanied by effective public education campaigns, but such efforts are unlikely to yield much success unless alternative materials to plastic are available and effective waste disposal and recycling systems are in place.

“The risk of natural disasters damaging costal-based recycling facilities and landfill sites, and floods or tsunamis washing the plastics into the ocean, coupled with the significant developments needed in facilities and public participation, points to recycling being unable to really address the plastics problem.”

The researchers are now recommending a new international treaty to support alternative technologies, which focuses not just on plastics linked to marine pollution from land‐based activities, but also plastics more generally. The proposed ‘plastics treaty’ would include:

  • banning oil-based plastics by phasing them out in the same way as the Ozone Convention led to the rapid phasing out of ozone depleting chemicals. This will also signal to States to support the development of industries producing alternative and less harmful materials e.g. biodegradable plastics
  • providing a clean-up fund for legacy plastics and requiring exporters to contribute to it, comparable to schemes in other treaties. The fund would be used to cover the costs of removing plastics from the oceans
  • support for the development of scientific understanding into alternatives to plastics and into the harm caused by plastics
  • support for capacity building efforts around the world to increase recycling facilities, and the use of alternative plastics
  • support for public education campaigns

Dr Popattanachai concluded: “Given the potential problems of continuing to build on existing regulatory responses to plastics pollution, we propose the adoption of a plastics treaty and argue that its effectiveness would likely be greater than that of a fragmented governance system containing variations in standards.

“We are arguing that the primary objective for the treaty should be a ban on oil‐based plastics. We recognise that focusing on a ban on plastics rather than, for example, deposit return schemes or other schemes designed to increase recycling, may be seen as radical or unnecessary. Our argument is, however, that such a treaty is both necessary to combat the rapidly growing plastics problem and more likely to be effective than the alternatives.”

Marine plastics: Fragmentation, effectiveness and legitimacy in international lawmaking has been published in the Review of European, Comparative & International Environmental Law. Read the full paper online.

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    The Centre for Marine Ecological Resilience and Geological Resources (MERGeR)

    MERGeR examines the intersection between marine ecosystems, the use of natural resources and the law. It promotes the engagement of law, lawyers and legal systems with the environment and resources in order to safeguard the continued and future resilience of the world’s ecosystem.

    About Nottingham Trent University

    Nottingham Trent University (NTU) was named University of the Year 2017 at the Times Higher Education Awards, and Modern University of the Year in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2018. These awards recognise NTU for its high levels of student satisfaction, its quality of teaching, its engagement with employers, and its overall student experience.

    NTU has been rated Gold in the Government’s Teaching Excellence Framework – the highest ranking available.

    NTU is one of the largest UK universities. With 30,000 students and more than 4,000 staff located across four campuses, the University contributes £900m to the UK economy every year. It is one of the UK’s most environmentally friendly universities, containing some of the sector’s most inspiring and efficient award-winning buildings. 96% of its graduates go on to employment or further education within six months of leaving.

    Our student satisfaction is high: NTU achieved an 88% satisfaction score in the 2018 National Student Satisfaction Survey.
    The University is passionate about creating opportunities and its extensive outreach programme is designed to enable Nottingham Trent to be a vehicle for social mobility. NTU is among the UK’s top five recruiters of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

    NTU is home to world-class research, and won The Queen’s Anniversary Prize in 2015 – the highest national honour for a UK university. It recognised the University’s pioneering projects to improve weapons and explosives detection in luggage; enable safer production of powdered infant formula; and combat food fraud.

    With an international student population of over 3,000 from around 100 countries, the University prides itself on its global outlook

    The Centre for Natural Resources and Environmental Law, Thammasat University

    The Natural Resources and Environmental Law Centre is the only institution in Thailand to offer an environmental law degree and provides comprehensive research coverage in both domestic and international environmental law.

Published on 23 November 2018
  • Category: Press office; Research; Nottingham Law School