Plastic Pollution
February 15 2019

Surfrider Provides Comments for the 4th United Nations Environment Assembly on Plastic Pollution

by Trent Hodges

The United Nations Environment Assembly will convene for their 4th session in March to discuss some of the world’s most pressing environmental concerns and push members states to adopt the appropriate strategies to confront environmental ills facing the world.  The theme, "Innovative solutions for environmental challenges and sustainable consumption and production," will look at how innovation can specifically address the plastic pollution crisis.  As the world's highest-level decision making body on the environment, the UNEA works towards completing the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals which serve as a blueprint to achieve peace and prosperity for people and the planet.

On February 5, the Surfrider Foundation joined other organizations and individuals in a regional consultation that took place in various locations across the US. In California, Massachusetts, Hawaii, and Washington DC, Surfrider staff and volunteers outlined our vision for a plastic-free ocean. Our representatives advocated in solidarity that the key to solving the plastic pollution crisis is to turn off the tap on the rampant production and consumption of single-use plastics. Recognizing that the production of plastic in the US alone is slated to increase by 1/3 by 2025 with more plastic in our landfills, our ocean, and environment, a global and comprehensive strategy that focuses on source reduction and zero waste as the guiding light should be the basis for innovation and material redesign, not the other way around. The graph below shows the trajectory of plastic pollution if business as usual continues.

Source: STAP Report "Plastics and the Circular Economy"

Surfrider advocates for a strategy that reduces plastic at the source because it is the key to creating systemic change. Due to the groundswell of local action to reduce plastic pollution by Surfrider chapters and partner organizations across the country, billions of single-use items have been kept out of landfills and off our beaches. Our plastic pollution victories have led to momentum at the statewide level for the 2019 legislative session across the U.S.

After we celebrated a big success with the passage of Proposition 67 and the voter approved referendum of a ban on single-use plastic bags in California, several coastal states this year are seriously considering bag bans, straw bans, foam bans, and even comprehensive strategies that set target reduction goals of plastic. Local, state, and even federal governments here and abroad are recognizing that policies to ban and reduce single-use plastics keep the ocean and streets clean, save money, and drive new innovative models to transform how we produce and consume. As we advocated in a congressional briefing to Congress last month, federal governments can learn form the successes of policies at the local and state level that ban single-use plastics with viable alternatives, and develop strategies that put responsibility on industry to reduce and manage their waste and packaged products.

As a follow up to the regional meeting, Surfrider submitted a letter to the United Nations Environment Assembly advocating our suggestions for the 4th session:

1. Innovation that promotes reusable products and a circular economy must be prioritized over the substitution to other materials

2. Surfrider discourages innovation that does not also address source reduction such as the incineration of waste, or replacing fossil-fuel based plastic with plant-based plastic.

In sum, innovation must aid in the transition to a circular economy and result in a reduction in the amount of plastic produced. Refill stations, zero-waste zones, and innovative business models such as Cup Club and Loop which attempt to replace single-use items with reusable options are good ideas, but also need to be monitored carefully to understand if they can be applicable to communities across the world, and if other environmental impacts such as an increased greenhouse gas emissions would result in wide-scale application.

Likewise, innovation in waste management and technologies to “clean up” plastic should be viewed with healthy skepticism. Surfrider has found that while our beach cleanups are essential and effective in removing debris from the coast, the plastic continues to flow to our beaches from upstream. As we continue to see with the Ocean Cleanup Project in the recent New Yorker article, cleaning up plastic after it has already ended up in our ocean is costly, and is only a temporary solution as plastic never truly goes away. Investment in source reduction strategies is the solution.

As we take on another exciting year of fighting plastic pollution at the source, the Surfrider Foundation hopes that the United Nations Environment Assembly will see how the significant steps taken by countries all over the world to address single-use plastics through policy and source reduction strategies, are the winds to set our sails upon.