Pollution to Solution: Can We Get Rid of Plastics in Our Oceans?

Original Paper: Haward, M. 2018. Plastic pollution of the world’s seas and oceans as a contemporary challenge in ocean governance. Nature Communications 9:667. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-03104-3

Featured Image Source: Flickr


Facing the Plastic Reality

Walking along a beach brings to mind a certain image – a breezy, sunny day, the waves lapping at the sand and the salty air in your face. Seagulls swoop overhead, and shells cover the ground beneath your feet. This majestic image invokes the calming effect many feel when surrounded by nature. Now, imagine you are walking along that same beach but as you move closer to the shells you notice they are actually jagged pieces of plastic sticking out of the sand, and the gulls you thought you saw earlier were really plastic bags floating in the wind. This isn’t just a fantasy story – this is becoming more of the reality in many coastal areas across the globe.

The Creation of An International Marine Plastic Pollution Agreement

Due to the increasing amount of plastic ending up in our marine realm and the persistent nature of plastics, the issue of marine plastic pollution has attracted increasing scientific concern. Many scientists have called for creating an international agreement to address the issue of marine plastic pollution. In December 2017, the United Nations Environment Assembly was held in Nairobi, Kenya, and the topic of plastic pollution was part of the discussed resolutions. The resolution included adopting a declaration stating that since “we dump [from] 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic in oceans,” something substantial must be done about this problem.

Measures Taken in the Past

A few organizations, such as the International Maritime Organization and the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention, have been created over the past few decades that have tried to address the threat of marine pollution. None of these conventions are solely dedicated to plastic pollution, but they do take some measures to prevent it. The International Maritime Organization created a few conventions, including The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships. Under this convention, it is illegal to dump plastics off of ships into the water virtually everywhere across the globe. However, it is extremely difficult to enforce this ban, because surveillance is limited. Countries would need to dedicate ships strictly to enforcement, which costs money and time, and since the ocean is so vast, it would be very difficult to effectively patrol its entirety.

Ships can dump plastic into the ocean but with the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships it is illegal to dump plastic from ships. However this ban is difficult to enforce. Source: Flickr
What is Marine Plastic Pollution?

Plastics make their way to the oceans and other water bodies from many sources: ships and vessels, fishing and aquaculture operations (rope, waste, fishing gear, nets), street litter, dumping, packaging (like plastic bags), plastic sheeting, and production waste. In water, larger plastics (like bottles, containers, and bags) break down over time into smaller plastics called microplastics, or any plastic piece under 5 mm.

A member of the Coast Guard helps rescue Loggerhead Sea Turtle in North Carolina. Source: Flickr


Why is This A Problem?

Coastal pollution has increased globally since the 1960’s and, according to the World Economic Forum, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by weight in 2050. That means plastic is accumulating in our oceans and on our shores at an alarming rate. This plastic can be harmful to many animals, including fish, birds, turtles, and cetaceans, because it can entangle them or be mistaken for food resources.


How to Create A Successful Agreement?

The United Nations Environment Assembly held in 2017 was the start to what could become a successful international agreement to address marine plastic pollution. Since most plastic pollution comes from terrestrial sources but ends up in the marine environment, policymakers realize solutions must focus on both land and aquatic systems. The disposal of land-based waste also needs to be enforced, which creates a similar problem to the one seen with MARPOL. If there is not enough adequate enforcement of these laws and conventions, then it will be very difficult to enact real change.

In 2015, world leaders created the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, under which certain countries agreed it was necessary to protect the environment and become more sustainable. The agenda includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals, one of which (#14) states that we must “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.” In order to support the implementation of this goal and get countries to commit to taking certain actions to protect the oceans, the United Nations Environment Assembly held the first Oceans Conference in 2017 in New York City. This conference focused on encouraging countries to make voluntary commitments towards the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14. More than 1,400 voluntary pledges have been made so far. This conference catalyzed the international push for ocean health and was considered a success by many. It got marine pollution recognized as a pressing and global issue, which has spawned a number of subsequent conferences and committees.

Communities of Ocean Action is the follow-up to the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14 and the voluntary commitments made at the Oceans Conference. The United Nations plans to hold another Oceans Conference to check up on the progress toward Sustainable Development Goal 14 and the commitments made by countries at the first conference. This is scheduled for 2020 and will likely be held in Portugal or Kenya. You can read more about the Oceans Conference, Sustainable Development Goal 14, Communities of Ocean Action, and other measures taken by the United Nations at https//:oceanconference.un.org

One of the next steps toward an international agreement could be to build further on the commitments made by countries at the Oceans Conference. Scientific support for these policies and commitments is also very important, as there is a lot more research that needs to be done in the field of marine plastic pollution. This research can help inform policy, since the more we understand the scale and scope of the problem, the more we can do to address the issue. The general community can also take action to reduce the amount of plastic entering the marine environment. Community actions can include a focus on recycling and reusing plastics, improving public awareness of the impacts of marine plastic pollution, and implementation of devices such as litter traps. At the state and industry level, a change in consumer demand, or what people buy, can force a reduction in the amount and type of plastic used.

International agreements generally take a long time to reach a consensus and they are not easily developed. However, all hope is not lost: steps can be taken to a more sustainable future by bringing the issue to global attention and encouraging a variety of stakeholders to commit to protecting our oceans. Gatherings like the Oceans Conference can provide the groundwork to evolve these agreements and engage governments and communities. At the local scale, state and city governments are taking measures towards improving ocean health. California has had a ban on plastic bags since 2016, and the state of New York announced a plastic bag ban in March of 2019 that will go into effect later this year. Even if you do not live in an area with these bans, easy ways to promote sustainable oceans include reducing your plastic bag usage, planning local beach cleanups, and writing letters to your local government about the importance of ocean health and the dangers of marine plastic pollution. With your help, we can work to reduce marine plastic pollution!



Andrady, A. L. 2011. Microplastics in the marine environment. Marine Pollution Bulletin 62(8): 1596-1605.

Browne, M.A., Niven, S.J., Galloway, T.S., Rowland, S.J. and R.C. Thompson. 2013. “Microplastic moves pollutants and additives to worms, reducing functions linked to health and biodiversity.” Current Biology, 23(23): 2388-2392.

Cole, M., Lindeque, P., Halsband, C., and T. S. Galloway. 2011. “Microplastics as contaminants in the marine environment: a review.” Marine Pollution Bulletin, 62(12): 2588-2597.

Neufeld, L., Stassen, F., Sheppard, R. and T. Gilman. 2016. The new plastics economy: rethinking the future of plastics. World Economic Forum.

Vikas, M., and G.S. Dwarakish. 2015. Coastal Pollution: A Review. International Conference on Water Resources, Coastal and Ocean Engineering 4: 381–88.


Reviewed By:

Chelsea Barreto
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Jessica Espinosa

Hi! My name is Jessica Espinosa and I am a PhD student at UConn in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department interested in the bird conservation. I received my masters degree in Conservation Biology from Columbia University where my thesis focused on the effects of coastal pollution on the behavior and morphology of hermit crabs in Fiji. I am also a Mount Holyoke College and City Year Alum. In my free time, I enjoy reading, writing, hiking, doing martial arts, and playing music.

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