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Discussion Paper - Marine Litter & Microplastics

Marine litter and Microplastics in context of UNEA and linkages to a Circular Economy

By Marine Litter & Microplastics Working Group, contributions from:

Suzanne Astic, Natalija Vonjo (University of Toronto), David N. Munene (Catholic Youth Network for Environment Sustainability in Africa), Zahra Abu Taha (Jordan), Hailey Campbell (Care About Climate), Adamu Bashir Ahmad (Nigeria), Dolapo Adejumo, Teresa Oberhauser (European Students Forum), Yugratna Srivastava (Plant-for-the-Planet)


As young people, we are tired of cleaning up at the tail-end of the pipe. To alleviate reliance on the end of pipe waste treatment, we believe a reframing of waste and pollution as problems is necessary. In the Great Lakes of North America, 80% of the litter found is plastic while the Africa Blue Economy Forum (ABEF; 2019) revealed a staggering US$ 13 billion in damages inflicted on the marine ecosystems. Even with interventions such as recycling, single-use plastics find their way into the waterways and, eventually, to the marine environment.

Microplastic pollution negatively impacts every corner of our globe. Beaches and waterfronts are littered with plastic, islands of plastics can be found floating in the ocean, seas, streams, rivers, and lakes. A recent study of protected areas in the western US year has found an annual deposit of plastic rain, that is the equivalent of over 120 million plastic water bottles being littered. The consumption of single-use plastics has also increased with the onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic, which has caused a spike in the consumption of single-use sanitary products - such as masks and gloves - along with an increase in less necessary single-use plastic bags and take-out containers.

We, the young people, applaud the existing solutions and interventions to address this global issue. We are, however, extremely opposed to solutions and interventions that are not in harmony with ecosystems. Waste does not disappear by magic and it cannot be wished away. Even when an item can be recycled (plastic bottles can be up to ten times) this does not guarantee that it will be recycled.

Unless the price of plastic is less than virgin material, plastics may be burned or dumped and will eventually find their way into rivers and oceans. Whereas compostable or bioplastic innovations are celebrated, we cannot overlook the warning by The Rethink Plastic Alliance that, “Bio-based plastics rely on limited land resources and chemical-intensive industrial agriculture” and “less than 40% of bio-based plastics are designed to be biodegradable”.

A whole life-cycle approach

No plastic is a good plastic This is where the circular economy presents a new approach for global, regional, and local policies of plastic management. The most effective solutions to the issue of plastic pollution are those that address the entire lifecycles of plastics. As a worrying plastic problem, marine litter cannot be tackled only at its polluting end-of-life - it must be tackled throughout its entire lifespan. From its very initial phase of production in polluting hydrocarbon plants to its creation using hazardous chemicals, to its design into packaging, and its final mis/“management” in legal or illegal dumping sites. Bold, circular-designs and interventions at these stages could prevent the visible end result of islands of floating plastic.

Embracing circular design

We know what is not good enough, so let us look at what would make a circular economy better. Several countries have indeed banned single-use plastic bags or even adopted circular economy legislation. For example, Kenya effected the ban on plastic carrier bags in August 2017 and introduced a ban on single-use plastics in protected areas such as national parks on World Environment Day 2020. In Europe, France passed legislation fighting waste and promoting the circular economy in February 2020. The far-reaching law bans single-use plastic products (compostable or not), introduces a network of drinking water fountains, and introduces incentives to reuse or buy sustainably. On a regional level, the European Union has proposed a new Circular Economy Action Plan within the Green Deal Framework. The EU explores the interconnections between the circular economy and marine litter pollution. On May 12th 2020, the European ENVI Committee had a discussion with the Commissioner for Oceans and fisheries on the Circular economy action plan. They both insisted on the need to respect the deadlines to implement this action plan, and the Commissioner emphasized the “need to be bold and to invest in the green recovery”(1). Globally, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the European Union adopted the Ocean Plastics Charter on June 9, 2018 to commit to a framework for a more sustainable plastics life-cycle.

Extended producer responsibility legislation, plastic bans, and high recycling targets are just some policies that have already been working to a certain extent. The fundamental idea of prevention, as the core of the circular economy, reduces the production of plastics to the maximum extent possible.

Figure 1: Canadian Council of Ministersof the Environment (CCME) approved Canada-wide strategy on Zero Plastic Waste circular economy model.

Imagine going beyond the above model by truly embracing the idea of prevention and designing out waste. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation depicts the circular economy as a butterfly composed of two loops representing technical and biological material. One would be optimized for modular durable uses, and then the other for regeneration. See Figure 2.

Figure 2: The Circular Economy as a balance of technical and biological material courtesy of the Allan Mcarthur Foundation

Recent advances in local and regional policies constitute an undeniable improvement that can inspire all countries to expand upon the circular economy. Although international frameworks are already regulating the waste flows (cf. the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions), there is no international agreement specifically setting binding obligations to achieve a circular economy. To reduce marine litter, the United Nations’ Member States, meeting within the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA), as well as stakeholders, are discussing Marine Litter and Microplastics within the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) framework. In the UNEA sessions to date, member States such as Norway, have been emboldened to present ambitious proposals for an internationally binding agreement. This idea is supported by UNEP in the report titled, “Progress in the Work of the Ad Hoc Open-Ended Expert Group on Marine Litter and Microplastics Established by Resolution 3/7’ (UNEP/EA.4/12)” .(2)

UNEP MGCY calls for binding policies for circularity and a reduction of plastic waste

The UNEP Major Group for Children and Youth (MGCY) is one of the nine Major groups representing civil society in fundamental processes including the Ad Hoc Open-Ended Expert Groups taking place between the UNEA sessions. MGCY is pledging for a bold internationally-binding text containing explicit measures that enable a move towards circularity and a reduction of plastic waste. MGCY particularly supports the adoption and implementation of a circular economy that focuses on eliminating the threat of the significant environmental and health effects posed by plastic pollution and marine letter to present and future generations. The devastating impact of plastic toxins on the youngest generations is well documented. “Some Plastics Can Poison Children”(3) and we, children and young people represented by the MGCY, will actively participate in UNEA5 negotiations to lobby and advocate for the guarantee of a safe, healthy, and predictable present and future where the world’s marine ecosystems are plastic-free. We want more fish than plastics in our oceans. We strongly

reiterate that a more circular economy is our best shot at addressing this global problem.

Furthermore, we believe that in order to collaboratively tackle marine pollution, negotiations must be inspired by local, national, and regional advancements. UNEA5 must also facilitate diverse State ambitions in order to achieve a globally effective agreement (4).

To mirror our collective advocacy efforts, as individuals, children and young people are making conscious choices to our consumption habits by opting for more sustainable goods and zero waste products and organizing litter cleanups. Yet, we are aware that effective action also requires systematic interventions that make alternatives more accessible, incentives that drive behaviour change towards waste-free living, reliable information, and awareness about the ongoing challenges concerning the marine litter and the circular economy. With more people engaged in the circular economy, we can turn the tide on plastic to operate within the planetary boundaries!

To learn more on the circular economy and the UNEA negotiations on Marine Litter and Microplastics, please find further reading:

● Join the MGCY to take actions and formation on these topics:

● Seas at risk Report concerning the Circular economy and marine litter:


● The Marine Litter Solutions Project :

● Rethinking Plastic Project:

● The Break Free From Plastic movement :

● UNIDO position on the circular economy and marine litter:

● Design Out Waste using the Use2Use Design Toolkit

● Environmental Defence’s Six Solutions to Reduce Plastic Waste


(1) Broadcast available here:

(2) IISD, “UNEP Shares Options for Continued Work on Marine Litter and Microplastics in Advance of UNEA-4”, 26 February 2019

(3) For more information on the toxicity of plastic for children, see the recent IPEN, Press Release, “Some Plastics Can Poison Children”, 04 May 2020

(4) Divergences in the States’ expectations and ambitions are discernable throughout the reading of their statements made during the UNEA and the sessions of the Ad Hoc Open-Ended Expert Group on Marine Litter and Microplastics.

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