Marine plastic pollution has been at the top of the agenda at the United Nations Ocean Conference this week, the subject of several side events and discussions among member states.
The issue seems to be a passion for Peter Thomson, the president of the U.N. General Assembly and a Fijian.
On Wednesday, Thomson popped into a side event on ocean plastic pollution organized by Indonesia and Norway. “I was meeting with the head of the Plastics Council for breakfast and he was saying the world cannot do without plastic,” Thomson told a standing-room-only gathering.
“The good news is they recognize there’s a problem, but what are they going to do about it? We have to work with the plastics industry. It’s not like we can ban plastic altogether. It’s not going to happen.”
But Thomson clearly thinks there’s plenty of plastic the world could do without. He told the story of being a boy in Fiji and smoking cigarettes under a coconut tree with his friends. “I can remember the moment when somebody first produced among our little group of bad boys a plastic single-use cigarette lighter,” he said. “It was the first one I had seen in my life.
“I remember being deeply offended as a 10-year-old or 11-year-old by the idea that there was this plastic thing that you used for a few weeks and then just threw away. I just couldn’t understand the logic of that.
“Matches were perfectly good,” Thomson added. “We had a local match factory in Suva made from local timber. Suddenly we had to have this plastic thing. And of course within a few years they started showing up on our beaches and now you know the story.
“Fifty years later, they’re on every beach in the world. So when the head of the Plastics Council said to me, ‘You can’t do without plastic,’ I’m sorry, you can do without plastic cigarette lighters.”
Thomson singled out the cosmetics and fashion industry for contributing to the contamination of the ocean with microplastics – tiny plastic beads and fibers that are used in face scrubs and clothing that end up in the sea and travel up the food chain as they’re consumed by plankton and fish.
“Why are they getting away with this?” he asked. “Microplastics are in the biosphere now, and that means we’re eating the plastic. We need to start challenging the sources, and the cosmetics is one that seems to be one of those not being brought to heel.”
He praised Kenya and other African countries for banning plastic bags despite intense industry pressure. “If they can do it, and Morocco can do it, and 12 other African countries are doing it, why can’t the rest of us do it?” Thomson said.
Waste Not, Want Not
The former president of Iceland appeared at the U.N. Ocean Conference to tout technology as one solution to overfishing by reducing waste and repurposing parts of fish that are discarded.
“It’s has been estimated that 50 percent of what we take out of the ocean is either thrown away or wasted,” said Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, who stepped down as president in 2016 after 20 years in office. “Based on IT and biotech innovation, you can enhance what you get out of the ocean.”
He cited a revitalized fishing industry as one reason Iceland quickly bounced back from the 2008 financial crisis that devastated the economy. One Icelandic startup has developed technology that reduces waste when fish are processed, while biotech companies are producing medicines from fish guts and other parts that usually end up in landfills.
“The 21st-century fishing sector can become one of the most profitable parts of the economy,” Grímsson said.
Children Petition World Leaders to Protect the Ocean
Children from 10 UNESCO marine World Heritage sites around the world have flown to New York to ask 40 heads of state who are attending the United Nations Ocean Conference to sign a pledge to protect the ocean.
The visit marked World Oceans Day on June 8.
“The children have traveled from some of the remotest places on Earth to highlight the global nature of the threats posed to the ocean, and the need for collective action,” the U.N. said in a statement.
“Like the rest of the world’s ocean, World Heritage marine sites are suffering from the impacts of climate change, including warming waters, stronger storms, rising seas and ocean acidification. The children know that decisions made today will have ripple effects for generations to come.”