Maritime community addresses plastic pollution in oceans

Representatives of law firm Blank Rome discuss how shipping organisations will reduce sea garbage

Maritime community addresses plastic pollution in oceans

By Elly Yates-Roberts |

The world has begun to recognise that plastic pollution in the ocean is not solely, or even mostly, a shipping problem. However, it is gratifying to see that the maritime community has stepped up to do what it can to address the growing threat to marine life, which can ingest or become entangled in plastic debris. In October 2018, this recognition took the form of a new action plan adopted by the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) to address plastics in the marine environment. The action plan is built on the commitment by the IMO to meet the targets set forth in the United Nation’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goal 14 (SDG 14), which is to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.”

The action plan, set forth in MEPC Res.310(73), consists of the following major elements, among others, described in greater detail below:

1. Reduction of marine plastic generated from fishing vessels
2. Reduction of shipping’s contribution to marine plastic pollution
3. Improvement of port reception facilities
4. Enhanced public awareness, education and seafarer training
5. Improved understanding of the contribution of ships to marine plastic pollution
6. Strengthened international cooperation.

What role does shipping play in the world’s plastic pollution?
The shipping community is subject to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL). Annex V of MARPOL contains regulations addressing garbage management and strictly prohibits the discharge of plastics. In 2013, new regulations went into effect that imposed stricter garbage management procedures and documentation requirements for all vessels, as well as fixed and floating platforms and a general prohibition on the discharge of all garbage unless the discharge is expressly provided for under the regulations. The new regulations allow the limited discharge of only four of categories of garbage: food waste, cargo residues, certain operational wastes not harmful to the marine environment, and carcasses of animals carried as cargo. Under the prior regulations, discharge of garbage into the sea was generally allowed unless specifically prohibited or limited. In 2018, Annex V was strengthened further, changing the criteria for determining whether cargo residues are harmful to the marine environment and revising the Garbage Record Book to include a new category for electronic waste.

Many cruise lines have adopted their own standards to control garbage beyond those contained in Annex V.  For example, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), a trade association representing more than 50 cruise lines encompassing over 90% of global cruise capacity, adopted a comprehensive waste management policy, which its members must follow. Some major cruise lines have gone beyond the CLIA policies and agreed to eliminate plastic straws and other single-use plastics. In October 2018, the European Parliament voted for a complete ban on a range of single-use plastics across the European Union (EU) to help prevent ocean pollution. The ban includes plastic cutlery and plates, straws, drink stirrers and balloon sticks. The EU intends for it to go into effect across member nations by 2021.

At the grassroots level, in September 2018, the Ocean Cleanup Project deployed its 2,000-foot long Ocean Cleanup System OO1 to pick up the plastic found in the famed – or infamous – Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is twice the size of the State of Texas. Known as Wilson, the system is designed to pick up the plastic before it degrades into microplastics. Unfortunately, in late December 2018, the clean-up system malfunctioned and was taken back to port but is expected to become operational again in 2019. Finally, some Caribbean nations have decided to ban or impose taxes on plastics and Styrofoam. Barbados, for example, is banning the import, use and sale of single-use plastics as of 1 April 2019, following the lead of Antigua, Barbuda, Grenada and St. Lucia.  

These are just some examples of what is happening worldwide to combat the plastic pollution crisis in the oceans.

Congress investigates the sources of marine debris
US Congress passed, with strong bipartisan support, the ‘Save Our Seas Act of 2018’ (SOS Act), which was signed into law on 11 October 2018.  Among other things, the SOS Act reauthorises the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine debris programmes for five years. It calls on the Administration to: support research on materials that reduce derelict fishing gear and solid waste from land based sources that enter the marine environment; work with foreign countries that discharge the largest amounts of solid waste from land-based sources into the marine environment to reduce such discharges; and work with those countries to conclude one or more new international agreements to mitigate the discharge of land-based solid waste into the marine environment. By requiring the US State Department to enter into international agreements, the SOS Act recognises that the problem is larger than garbage entering the oceans from ships.

The US Congress has also held hearings on marine debris. In September 2018, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing at which industry witnesses and non governmental organisations testified about marine debris. Opening statements from the John Barrasso, State Senator of Wyoming, and Tom Carper, State Senator of Delaware, recognised the scope of the issue and committed to taking new action. This was also echoed by Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska, who is working on an expanded version of the SOS Act, called ‘SOS2,’ with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island for introduction this year in the 116th Congress. The American Chemistry Council (ACC) witness stated that “while marine debris is a huge problem, it is also a solvable one.” The ACC has set a goal of ensuring that 100% of plastic packaging is recyclable or recoverable by 2030. Similarly, the Coca Cola Corporation witness committed to a multi-year investment to make its packaging 100% recyclable by 2025.

Land-based sources of marine debris and the role of IMO’s action plan
On 21 November 2018, The New York Times reported about a beached whale in Indonesia containing 1,000 pieces of plastic in its stomach. This story and photo gained worldwide attention, particularly in Indonesia, which had been labelled one of the major sources of marine pollution. Subsequently, Indonesia, one of the top six plastic waste producers, set a goal of reducing plastic waste by 70% by 2025 and set aside US$1 billion per year to combat the problem. v

The IMO action plan addresses the main sources of marine plastics pollution and gives the shipping community a key role in addressing them. Some of the more specific tasks in the action plan and associated responsibilities for Member States regarding implementation follow:

1. Fishing gear
Consider making mandatory, through an appropriate IMO instrument, the marking of fishing gear with an IMO Ship Identification Number, in cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. In addition, consider the development of best management practices to facilitate incentives for fishing vessels to retrieve derelict fishing gear and deliver it to port reception facilities.

2. Reduce shipping’s contribution to marine plastic pollution
Review the application of placards, garbage management plans and garbage record-keeping and consider making the Garbage Record Book mandatory for ships of 100gt and above (now, the requirement only applies to vessels greater than 400gt), working with the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee.

3. Improve the effectiveness of port reception facilities 
Encourage Member States to implement their obligation to provide adequate facilities at ports and terminals for the reception of garbage. The lack of adequate port reception facilities is a serious problem in the Caribbean and other developing countries and would require international financial commitments to do this effectively.

4. Enhance public awareness, education and seafarer training
Review fishing vessel personnel training to ensure they receive basic training on marine environmental awareness focused on marine plastic pollution. IMO’s MEPC is to work with the Human Element, Training and Watchkeeping Subcommittee to review training under the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers.

5. Improve understanding of the contribution of ships to marine plastic pollution
Conduct a study on marine plastic pollution, including macro and microplastics from all ships and encourage member states to share results of the research. The MEPC is to work with the FAO, the United Nation’s World Ocean Assessment and the Regional Seas Convention to accomplish this task. 

6. Strengthen international cooperation
Work with other United Nation’s agencies, such as FAO and the United Nations Environment Program, which are active in marine plastic litter and cooperate with the Global Partnership on Marine Litter.

Another key element of the action plan will be to review the existing regulatory regime to identify gaps that might require new legislation and regulations. 

Call to action 
The maritime community is stepping up to address its role in combatting marine plastics debris by adopting IMO’s action plan and taking additional stringent actions either independently or through industry trade associations. While the action plan is voluntary at this point, it is a blueprint for how the maritime community and countries can do their part to reduce marine plastics debris in conjunction with other United Nation’s organisations and member states.

The action plan recognises that the maritime community continues to have a role to play in reducing plastics that enter the marine environment – even though there is recognition that the major sources of marine plastics debris come from land-based sources. All countries producing plastic and waste have a part to play in solving this problem. Finally, as citizens of the world and lovers of clean oceans, we urge everyone to do their part to minimise single-use plastics in their daily lives.

Jeanne Grasso is the vice chair of Maritime and International Trade Practice at Blank Rome, and Joan Bondareff, Of Counsel, Maritime and International Trade Practice Group at Blank Rome

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