The largest conference on plastic pollution in the world, but where was the elephant in the room?
The heat was palpable for us that travelled from Norway to Busan, South Korea, in the middle of September 2022 to attend a conference on plastic pollution and marine debris. In addition, upon arrival we were greeted with sirens telling us a typhon was on the way, which made the start of our trip less of a culture shock and more of a weather shock. Ahead of us though were 110 technical sessions across 9 different themes, with 934 participants from 89 countries, 564 different presentations and 234 posters on different angles of marine plastic pollution. Participants just like us – two political scientists from SINTEF Ocean with a special interest in governance of plastic pollution throughout its lifecycle, particularly in the Arctic with the special circumstances there.
The last time the International Marine Debris Conference (IMDC) was held was in March 2018 in California, with 700 participants from 54 countries, almost exactly two years before the global pandemic shut down much of the world on and off for nearly two years. Meeting in person and socialising was therefore also high on the agenda for the participants. The pandemic was, however, still alive and well in Busan, South Korea, where we arrived to meet obligatory PCR tests for all at the airport upon entry, as well as daily tests to enter the conference venue and mandatory masking in all indoor spaces throughout the country. All the testing was worth it though, as the conference was highly anticipated, and brought together governments, industry, academia and civil society in a forum to understand the latest science and regulations when it comes to addressing the global problem of plastic pollution. When the world famous K-pop band Stray Kids addition sponsored the conference with a recorded welcome, we (or at least K-pop fans like myself) were sold and ready to “inform.connect.inspire” for the next week.
The main stage was on the third day of the conference, when the session I organised together with my colleague Anne Katrine Normann at the University of Tromsø took place, with a basis in the GOMPLAR project, funded by the Research Council of Norway. During this session, entitled “Pan-Arctic Governance of Marine Plastic Litter – and beyond“, Emily and I shared our work. Emily presented on following the path of the plastic treaty and how the circular economy can be implemented in the Arctic with her talk “End of life at the top of the world – Implementing a global agreement on plastics and the circular economy in the Arctic“. I presented on the plastic treaty, the Arctic and what can be learned from the ongoing process on developing a treaty for biodiversity protection in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ) (read my blog post on the last session of those negotiations here).
Emily also presented on the treaty negotiations themselves in a panel on Science to Policy, hosted by GRID Arendal. Her talk was also part of the GOMPLAR project and was entitled “Take on me: Orchestration Theory in Plastics Governance”, where she spoke about using governance theory in examining the non-state actors involved in the plastics negotiations. Later she presented the work from the KSP project Plasticene, also funded by the Research Council of Norway, on Serious Games as a tool for Ocean Literacy.
With all this talk, and all these scientists gathered together, what was achieved and what have we learned from the researchers, civil society and government from around the world, just weeks before official negotiations start towards reaching an agreement on ending plastic pollution? These are some of the biggest takeaways we are left with:
- The elephant in the room was largely missing until the closing plenary, when Stewart Harris, Senior Director for Global Plastics Policy at the American Chemistry Council, was a panel participant. Though the focus of both the upcoming treaty negotiations and the conference is on the entire life cycle of plastics as a whole, the start of the loop – where upstream solutions will hit the hardest – was not visibly present. This refers to the petrochemical industry that produces the virgin plastic pellets from fossil fuels. This is most definitely a problem. We cannot recycle our way out of this global plastic pollution crisis. Yet, that still seems to be what most are presenting on. Yes – low hanging fruits are important to pick. But we really should be aiming higher, should we not? Though we must be prepared for a fight from the petrochemical, oil and gas industries.
- Knowledge about and solutions for plastic pollution is fragmented, uncoordinated, disconnected and limited, and patchwork initiatives range from local plastic bag fees to larger global initiatives from the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and regional conventions such as OSPAR and HELCOM. To aim higher, we do not need to reinvent the wheel, but we need to have more knowledge. So where is the data, and how can we combine what we know, while acknowledging what we don’t know (and might never find out, such as how many containers with plastics are lost at sea at any given time)?
- Because of the lack of data, and the difficulty of finding it, we are relying a lot on citizen science to map the number of macro plastics found in the environment – typically in the form of beach clean-ups, and it seems to be the only way to get enough knowledge. However, what we don’t know is how reliable this data is, and this research too is uncoordinated across states, research institutes, and NGOs/academia. Here too, coordination of methodologies between industry, agencies and NGOs is key, while ensuring that data is comparable and critical. Will all actors share their data though?
- Finally, there is a chasm between what one side of the table wants in a new plastic treaty, and what can realistically be achieved, and that is just a fact. We heard lists recited of what had to be in a treaty – financial mechanisms, equity, differentiated obligations, environmental justice, building, monitoring, enforcement, financial consequences for non-compliance, complete cap on production and the list goes on. Having followed the BBNJ negotiations for years now, I realise that the longer and more specific the list, the stronger the treaty, and the less likely it is that it will be adopted. What strength will the treaty have if it is not adopted by all nations?
Is the solution really to fall back, once again, on putting the blame on the consumer and reducing consumption in line with SDG 12? This was even one of the solutions pitched by Martyn Tickner, Chief Advisor of Alliance to End Plastic Waste in the closing plenary. “Production follows demand,” he said and emphasized that we needed to find out what could reduce this demand. Where the petrochemical industry has had more than 80 years of convincing us of our need for plastics, the recycling industry is younger and less developed. We don’t have all this time though, so it will be tense to watch what global leaders do with this pressure once the first meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-1) to develop a legally binding instrument on plastic pollution takes place November 28th-December 2nd 2022. Just in time for the 15th meeting of the Conference of Parties for the Convention of Biological Diversity. This might just be the year where we see the start of something tangible in terms of solutions to end plastic pollution. We hope.
SINTEF will participate as observers at the INC-1 like we have during the BBNJ intergovernmental conferences. Multilateralism is an almost indispensable form of international diplomacy, and we will study the principles, values and organisations that determine the international order, and in turn shape international politics around the issue of plastic governance throughout its whole life cycle – including production.
Blog post written by:
Rachel Tiller, Chief Scientist and Coordinator of SINTEFs strategic work on Biodiversity and area use
Emily Cowan, Researcher in the Department of Climate and Environment at SINTEF Ocean and Observer at the International Negotiation Committee (INC) to develop a legally binding instrument on plastic pollution