Combatting Plastics in the Ocean – A Return of Global Governance for the Blue Economy

The ocean’s pollution with plastics has stirred multiple promising responses across the globe. Are we on the verge of a new type of global governance? This article explains what challenges exist, how such governance may look and what is still missing.

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It is hard to catch up on the news about plastics in the ocean, and the many solutions that are under way. Here are just a few: San Diego, other cities and local councils are banning Styrofoam food and drink containers; the EU, Washington D.C. and others are banning plastic straws; Visitors will no longer be allowed to carry in single-use plastics into Peru's 76 natural and cultural protected areas; and the list goes on. While some of this may look like regulation reloaded, the overall picture is quite forward-oriented.

More than 450 organisations have joined a ’new plastics economy global commitment’ with partnerships from H&M, Unilever, PepsiCo, L'Oreal, Nestle, Coca-Cola, a number of cities and political actors. It is a collaboration with the United Nations and is being led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Other partners include the World-Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the World Economic Forum (WEF), the Consumer Goods Forum, financial institutions and venture capital funds, and 40 academic institutions, including University College London (UCL). There is a set of targets, underpinned by reviews, set for the year 2025 to:

  • Eliminate problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging and move from single-use to reuse packaging models
  • Innovate to ensure 100% of plastic packaging can be easily and safely reused, recycled, or composted by 2025 (see e.g. the UCL Plastics Waste Innovation Hub and plastics heritage)
  • Circulate the plastic produced, by significantly increasing the amounts of plastics reused or recycled and made into new packaging or products.

No foresight analysis predicted this surge of global activities; rather, it can be seen as unprecedented compared to the many years it took in the nineties to set up international climate action based on science and political will. Some driving forces for phasing out plastic waste so vividly, however, are now easy to spot. Discoveries of fish with stomach full of plastic went viral via media, and voices like Sir David Attenborough urging for action after filming Blue Planet II in 2017 were heard across the globe. In addition, the political shockwave created through China’s crackdown on the import of plastic waste in early 2018 fuelled the tidal wave of action. Thus, it’s been high pressure to act created through media and China as a global player triggering action.

The wider picture of planetary boundaries

At the same time, other challenges cannot be overlooked. Ocean acidification continues. Research underlines feedback risks related to a decomposition of ocean methane hydrates, increased marine bacterial respiration, Southern Ocean heat accumulation, and loss of polar ice sheets accompanied by a rise in sea levels and potential amplification of temperature rise through changes in ocean circulation. Impacts on societies might well accelerate. Tipping cascades are most likely to affect especially the Global South e.g. around coral reefs, Indian Summer monsoon, El Nino Southern oscillation as well as across tropical regions with rainforest habitats. Tackling pollution needs alignment with meeting the SDGs and especially net zero carbon efforts.

Wicked challenges

Challenges like this are often called ‘super wicked’. Characterized by time running out, those causing the problem needed to become part of a solution, and authority on decision-making missing, they require new types of governance approaches with immediate action and a long-term perspective. UCL researchers David Coen and Tom Pelgram propose a 3rd generation of global governance research able to transcend multilateral gridlocks and addressing transboundary problems. We borrow here the importance of scales (e.g. how do actors align over different jurisdictions and in fragile states?), the relevance of a comparative perspective (e.g. how do action context and outcomes differ, if done in a quite different country?), and the focus on ‘what works’ in unsettled times driven by a range of actors under a range of circumstances.

Yet, it will take one more ingredient to fully address the wicked challenge of too much plastic ending up in unhealthy conditions. It is necessary to go beyond symbolic action and address the long-term perspective. Good global governance needs a vision of what is seeks to achieve combined with an aspiration for broader public purposes.

Visions, mission-oriented policies and roadmaps

A vision is seen as elementary in transition research to raise aspirations and ambitions, it helps to align individual activities with collective action, and it inspires product designers and business developers. It is important to realize such visions can be formulated based on incomplete information about negative impacts that need to be avoided, e.g. what exactly is the long-term adverse impact of marine microplastics on the marine system and human health. In order to create new transformative knowledge with stakeholder buy-in, such vision ought to be open and pluralistic, it needs to be embedded in transition strategies and enable further research.

The EU-funded project ‘Inno4SD’ – the Innovation for Sustainable Development Network – has pulled together a library of evidence on what works in a comparative perspective, with excellent insights into policy and market development. As a recent policy paper outlines, a key is the blending of mission-oriented policies, innovation and roadmaps. The wicked challenges of today require multiple experiments, social learning from success and mistakes, and core values of pluralism, openness, and inclusion. The trap of new path dependencies and lock-ins can be counteracted by strategic attempts to accelerate and bringing stakeholders together in transition labs.

On the verge of a new type of global ocean governance

Are we on the verge of a new type of global ocean governance? In light of increasing fragmentation, sweeping populism and surging phobia against ‘others’, our ‘Yes, perhaps’ might come as a surprise. Yet, the encouraging activities to combat plastic in the ocean and the pattern it reveals as well as the encouraging ocean science roadmap could well indicate a dawn for a next generation of global governance, if emerging gaps are addressed by effective arrangements. The research from above suggests a strengthening along the following lines:

  • Coordinating bottom-up policies rather than creating a top-down architecture: Europe, China and international organisations, could collaborate with key countries such as India, Indonesia and others on capacity building and turning pledges into a platform for innovative plastic products and a circular economy with roadmaps and transformative pathways for business models and participatory planning processes, all with a focus on regions and ‘lessons learned’.
  • Align SDGs: Integrating efforts on sustainable energy, e.g. via floating solar systems, coastal zone management of urban areas and islands, sustainable fishery and sustainable tourism. Enhance efforts to low carbon shipping.
  • Finance: Create a financial mechanism to value the ocean’s contribution to ecosystem services and to fund further research via a moderate levy on e.g. international shipping and aviation.

The ‘‘blue economy’’ is estimated to be worth US$3–$6 trillion per year and is expanding. Now entering the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development should come with a strong role for transformative research and Higher Education in assessments and co-developing future pathways through international partnerships and continuous professional development – and shaping the global governance architecture towards a plastic free ocean, decarbonisation, a circular economy and the Sustainable Development Goals.

About the author

Professor Raimund Bleichwitz is Chair in Sustainable Global Resources, Director The UCL Bartlett School of Environment Energy & Resources (BSEER), University College London (UCL)  Twitter: @BleischwitzR 

Image credit

Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash


Go to the profile of Raimund Bleischwitz

Raimund Bleischwitz

Professor, Director, University College London

Raimund Bleischwitz is Chair in Sustainable Global Resources at University College London (UCL) and Director of the UCL Bartlett School of Environment, Energy and Resources (UCL BSEER). He has been Principal Investigator of an international collaborative project on the circular economy in China (SINCERE), and he participates in a number of EU projects on eco-innovation and raw minerals. Till July 2018 he was Deputy Director of the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources (UCL ISR). Raimund has a PhD and a ‘Habilitation’ in economics and more than 250 publications, most recently the Routledge Handbook of the Resource Nexus.

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