Q & A: What Price Do We Put on Our Oceans?

Jerri-Lynn here: This interview with Erik Solheim, Executive Director United Nations Environment, on the eve of the 3rd UN Environment Assembly, in Nairobi, Kenya, discusses  clean-up measures that seem to me to be a mere drop in the oceans, compared to the magnitude of world environmental clean-up problems. Starting tomorrow and continuing through December 6, 193 UN member states will discuss and make global commitments to environmental protection.

I suppose that there’s small cause for optimism that some of the world’s poorest countries– Bangladesh, India, Kenya, have taken steps such as banning plastic bags.  Those of us in richer countries that continue to state their produce in plastic might take note.

Overall, however, the future looks bleak.

By Manipadma Jena,an international environmental journalist reporting from New Delhi and Bhubaneswar in India. She specializes in climate change, gender, water, renewable energy, migration & biodiversity, is passionately interested in rights of indigenous communities and photograph.Originally published at Inter Press Service

Erik Solheim participates in the largest beach clean-up in history at Versova Beach Clean-Up in Mumbai, India, in October 2016. Photo courtesy of UNEP

“Political resolve is the key for succeeding in our fight against oceans pollution,” Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment, who is leading hands-on the organisation’s global campaign to clean up seas and oceans of plastic litter, agricultural run‑off and chemical dumping, told IPS.

“It’s about building capacity for strong environmental governance and bolstering political leadership on these issues,” said Solheim, who previously served as Norway’s Minister of the Environment and International Development.

“If action is not taken today, we’re lining ourselves up for the ultimate cost – the destruction of our oceans – down the line.”

“One of the big changes has been an understanding of the issue (of marine pollution) and a realization that we are facing an extremely serious problem. As a result, we’re starting to see a range of initiatives,” he said.

“On the community level, there are people like Afroz Shah and Mumbai’s Versova Beach clean-up team, for example. They’re really doing an amazing job of drawing attention to the problem.

“Then we’re seeing the “private sector begin to take serious action,” he said. “For example, Dell is changing its packaging. Certain big national and international chains are changing their practices – for example by using paper instead of plastic, or cutting out plastic straws.

“Then we have government action, which is crucial. Certain countries have banned microplastics, some have banned plastic bags. Kenya, Rwanda and Bangladesh, for example, are recognised global leaders on plastic pollution,” he added.

“This points to a growing understanding of the marine litter problem and a resolve to take concrete action. Ultimately, the problem of marine litter is upstream. We need industries to change. We need people to exercise their power as consumers,” Solheim said.

In what Joachim Spangenberg of Germany’s Helmholtz Centre for Environment Research called the “political economy” of pollution, where vested-interest lobbies profit by externalizing costs of production and discharging unwanted waste into the environment, anti-plastic law-makers are up against a global plastic industry worth 654 billion dollars by 2020. Dow Chemicals, Du Pont, BASF, ExxonMobil, and Bayer are key players invested in the sector.

But Spangenberg too says that heads of government have great power to address this “political economy” of pollution.

Oceans are the new economic frontier, but ill health eating into its potential

Between 2010 and 2030 on a business‑as‑usual scenario, the ocean economy could double its global value added to 3 trillion dollars and provide 40 million jobs, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) major 2016 study said.

Ocean is the new economic frontier, it said, its growth driven by traditional and emerging ocean-based industries, marine food, energy, transport, minerals, medicines, tourism and innovations.

But OECD warns the oceans’ undermined health would cut into its full growth potential.

“We need governments to make polluters pay, and to ensure we work harder on recycling, reuse and waste management. The solution is stopping the waste ending up in the ocean in the first place,” Solheim told Inter Press Service.

UN Environment chief Erik Solheim. Photo courtesy of UNEP

Pollution from plastic waste in oceans is costing 8 billion dollars

“Pollution from plastic waste being dumped in the ocean is costing the world at least 8 billion dollars every year, but this estimate is certain to be an underestimate when we factor in the cumulative, long-term consequences,” said the UNEP chief.

Between 4.8 million tonnes and 12.7 million tonnes of plastic waste enter the ocean every year, 80 percent of it from land sources due to inadequate waste management.

According to the Worldwatch Institute, plastic production is increasing 4-5 percent annually.

Plastic pollution is everywhere; even a tiny uninhabited island in the Pacific Ocean far from human contact had 18 tonnes of plastic washed up on it. Plastic waste was found at 36,000 feet in depth – the deepest spot in the ocean in the Mariana trench, he points out.

Plastic aside, land-based sources pump in the maximum waste and pollutants into oceans and coastal waters, mostly through rivers. Farming, food and agro-industry, fisheries and aquaculture, oil and energy sector, waste, wastewater, packaging sector, extractives and pharmaceuticals are major sources.

In coastal regions where 37 percent of the global population lives, these pollutants can stunt neurological development, cause heart and kidney disease, cancer, sterility and hormonal disruption.

Among the little know impacts on marine creatures, ingestion of microplastics (size less than 5 mm) by fish can affect female fertility and grow reproductive tissue in male fish causing their feminization. Chemicals in plastic cause thyroid disorder in whales, physiological stress, liver cancer, and endocrine dysfunction, says UNEP’s 2017 pollution report.

“Then of course we have to look at waste to the economy of plastics being produced, used for a few seconds or minutes and then dumped,” Solheim said.

Why are many law-makers still dragging their feet on strong anti-plastic policies?

Environmental activists say regulating marine pollution needs bold and several restrictive, unpopular policies that on which elected law makers are seen to be dragging their feet.

“It’s a case of presenting environmental action in a positive, constructive way. We need to stop looking at it as a cost or sacrifice, but as an opportunity, a win for health, benefits for the economy and for the planet,” Solheim counters the critics.

The Kenyan government recently banned single-use plastic bags. “There were inevitably complaints from some manufacturers, but we have to consider what the benefits are from making the switch to more sustainable packaging.

“There are business opportunities. There are benefits to tourism, as nobody wants to go on a safari and see plastic bags blowing across the savannah, or spend a holiday on beaches littered with plastic. There are benefits to the food chain too. We’ve seen cows whose stomachs were filled with plastic,” he added.

Actions don’t need to be unpopular. For example, “does any country have a policy to throw rubbish into the sea?” “Certainly not! If that was a real policy, people would be justifiably furious.” he said. But that is what has happened, in the absence of strong policies.

“For too long, the relationship between prosperity and environment has been seen as a trade-off. Tackling pollution was considered an unwelcome cost on industry and a handicap to economic growth,” Solheim says in his ‘Vision for a Pollution-free Planet,’ in the run-up to the UN Environment Assembly. “(But) it’s now clear that sustainable development is the only form of development that makes sense, including in financial and economic terms,” he adds.

“If action is not taken today, we’re lining ourselves up for the ultimate cost – the destruction of our oceans – down the line. It’s cheaper to prevent pollution now than clean up in the future,” he told Inter Press Service.

“That’s the message we really need to get across, so that governments can feel inspired and emboldened to take action.

“After that, what price do we put on our oceans? They sustain human life in such a way that surely we need to look at the oceans as priceless,” Solheim said.

“We have to look at pollution as a factor alongside climate change and over-fishing. We have to look at oceans as interconnected,” Solheim said.

Keeping marine litter high on national environmental policy agendas of the 193 member nations, pollution is the focus of the 2017 UN Environment Assembly 4-6 December at the UN headquarters of Nairobi.

The UN Environment Assembly is attended by 193 member states, heads of state, environment ministers, CEOs of multinational companies, NASA scientists, NGOs, environmental activists, and celebrities to discuss and make global commitments to environmental protection.

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  1. ef

    This has been a subject that’s always bothered me. Plastics. In the 90’s, when I was in the cabinetmaking business, right up to today, there was always a demand for laminated plastics (Formica). You could always count on it. Hospitals, retail outfits, restaurants, residential projects demanded it. After all, it gave you a clean and cleanable surface.
    But working with the stuff demanded a contact cement where fumes could kill you. The particle board onto which you glued it was made of sawdust and more glue. And when a customer wanted to replace the stuff, I was the guy who had to take it to the dump or landfill.
    I always thought that the West is BUILT on plastics. The waste from plastics is HUGE. And if one were to replace all laminates (Formica) and plastics in the building business alone with something recyclable, well the cost would get real unreadable. Cleaning the stuff up is bad enough. At least some nations are trying it. But replacing plastics, that is the tuffy.

    1. JTMcPhee

      Was there stuff before plastics? One wonders what people did for surfaces before Formica. Shellac? Varnish? Glossy paints (with maybe lead in them, of course)? Zinc sheets?

      Too bad that so much construction and renovation (mostly, see HGTV, e.g., to serve the maybe the 10 or 5 and 0.01%ers, and all that is about quick and dirty and the profits to be derived from externalities like trash and waste and debris everywhere. One might think that maybe this is a manifestation of that notion from physics, known as “entropy?” And maybe that the way all the human-generated messes will get cleaned up is via some kind of tipping point or global catastrophe?

      I guess we can count some progress,, in that the contact cements seem to be less toxic these days:

      1. Lord Koos

        There were a whole lot fewer people in the world before plastics were invented, and there was more likely to be enough recyclable products to go around, glass, wood, bamboo etc.

  2. Octopii

    The magnitude of the plastic pollution in the oceans is probably incomprehensible. But instead of giving conservationist “liberals” crap about their Priuses and 5R efforts, anyone who loves being on the water would be more helpful taking their own steps to reducing their household and workplace plastic waste output. It does make a difference, even if it’s just local.

    The inland waterways of France have very little trash – it’s surreal to travel the canals and rivers and see essentially no bottles, wrappers, can caddies, styrofoam takeout containers. It’s only near major towns that one sees garbage in the water. In the US there is crap everywhere — in the most remote areas of the Everglades you’ll find bottles.

    Behavior makes a difference. So do organizations that do cleanup and prevention.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Agreed. I’m a keen recreational diver, and I often carry a mesh bag with me while diving to bring up plastic– usually, water bottles– that would ordinarily just languish on the seabed. Plus I do my best to eschew plastic– and what I can’t eliminate, I recycle or reuse. Individual efforts alone won’t fix this problem– but they’re not going to worsen it either.

      1. steelhead23

        Good on ya mate. As a fisherman I make a point of picking up some of the trash I see while out fishing. It is dismaying to see folks use our waterways as trash baskets, but they do. I recall that my farming grandparents composted rubbish but simply dumped all the tin cans into the coulee that ran through the place. No biggee when the U.S. had 150 million souls and the globe, less than 3 billion. We have now more than doubled those numbers and our trash production per capita is out of sight. Sure, picking up others’ messes helps, but the solution lies in reduced production and reduced population – a dream it would appear.

    2. Vatch

      Behavior makes a difference.

      So true! Where I work, the parking lot floods every couple of years. There are drains and a storm sewer system, but the pipes get clogged with leaves and flattened plastic bottles. So plumbers have to come out and clean out the pipes. I’ve started picking up plastic bottles that I see lying in the parking lot, because they will otherwise end up clogging the storm sewers at our parking lot.

  3. Sluggeaux

    “does any country have a policy to throw rubbish into the sea?”

    Um, other than New York City, which did with human sludge until as recently as 1992…

    I’m quite certain that others do so as well to this very day. My own Socialist Republic of Berserkeley-by-the-Beach still discharges “overflow” untreated human turds into the Monterey Bay during winter storms. Seattle’s flooded human waste facility massively dumped the Emerald City’s untreated sewers into Elliott Bay just this past winter.

    Besides: it’s not the trash, it’s the people. If global human population had been capped at about 2.5 Billion, the oceans might have had a chance. As it stands, the systems that are in place are hopelessly overwhelmed.

  4. Susan the other

    Thank you JL for this post. It is amazing to think about how long environmentalists have been talking about plastic pollution and recycling… decades. And no real concern until lately. I hope this is the beginning of the end of plastic pollution. Depressing to think how long we have ignored it. One thing we need to look at, in terms of cleanup, is the inconvenience of recycling. I’ve finally given up half of my garage to the effort. It takes a commitment in terms of housekeeping or maintenance. And that requires space and a place to organize. I keep thinking everyone is as compulsive as I am – once I get started. It’s really satisfying to be well organized – even if it is well-organized garbage.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      As you point out, recycling’s not so difficult, once one commits to it. I also try and eliminate as much as possible bringing plastic into my household. If it never passes over my transom, I don’t have to worry about disposing of it.

  5. nonsense factory

    “After that, what price do we put on our oceans? They sustain human life in such a way that surely we need to look at the oceans as priceless,” Solheim said.

    This is a difficult concept for today’s average academic economist to wrap their heads around – they tend to believe that economics explains everything and everything must be assigned a price, from the air we breathe to the water we drink, sunlight and wind included. Only then will it have ‘value’ and thus be worthy of protection. It’s pure insanity – which is why economists are always sequestered away in business departments, never having to face the ridicule of people in the natural sciences over their pseudo-scientific astrology-like ‘theorems’ and predictions. Talk about a discipline in need of drastic reform.

    1. Lord Koos

      In economic terms, damages to the environment are referred to as “externalities”. Until corporations are forced to pay for the harmful effects their products and operations have on our planet, I don’t see how individual actions will have much effect.

  6. jawbone

    Will the oceans continue to support human life if we continue to let plastics get into the oceans and then degrade to micro sized pieces of plastic? Which, from what I’ve read, means fish eat the stuff, seeing it as something edible. Saw an article (here?) saying plastics had made it into the brains of sea creatures who depend on krill, other very small natural foodstuffs. And the plastics affect the behavior of these plastic eaters quite negatively.

    We should be setting up nets to catch any plastics heading into out waterways. And, as mentioned by Octopii, in France many waterways are trash free. People can change.


    1. WobblyTelomeres

      I keep arguing that we need to station barges containing pyrolytic ovens in the ocean, which feed their ovens with the methane extracted by heating plastic. Suck up the plastic, convert it to methane at 800 degrees, use that methane to continue to process. Put them in the middle of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Will take time to clean it all up, but the process works.

      Too much science, though. Prolly won’t stand a chance.

      1. JTMcPhee

        Too bad CO2 is one component of the gasses produced by all that pyrolysis. Pick your poison…

        And the “Pacific” Ocean is no more “pacific” than the Atlantic. Not to mention being a bath of corrosive chemicals in its natural state. Hard to build something that can withstand storms and not succumb to corrosion and the many mechanical failures that dog vessels at sea… What’s the expected lifetime of an ocean-going container ship, or oil extraction rig, or military vessel even with some very regular and expensive maintenance? Let alone a barge that is running a fire=breathing furnace at several thousand degrees…

        1. bob

          Just make it an electronic, self driving, self operating, fire breathing furnace.

          It’s smart. No problem.

  7. JTMcPhee

    When I still owned a boat, I belonged to an organization called “BOAT/US,” the “Boat Owners Association of The United States.” Kind of an aquatic AARP for the middle class recreational boat owner — specializing in insurance, both for boats and various tie-ins like boat loans and a mediation service between owners and boat manufacturers, a towing service, and “lobbying for boating interests.”

    I can’t find the article any more, but maybe 10 or 12 years ago, there was a piece by the president of the organization in the monthly magazine, touting how BOAT/US was participating (mostly just observing, I believe) in a grand effort organized by the looters in government and “business” to apply the new tools of GIS to measuring and surveying and benchmarking the oceans as “owned property,” part of a vast and ongoing dividing up between “interests” of all the extractable resources that make up the oceans and the seafloor– from fish and algae to those manganese nodules and other Great Riches Just Waiting To Be Exploited. The organization’s president was all proud of its efforts to make sure BOAT/US “had a seat at the table” when the oceans were carved up by the same kinds of creatures that once deeded half the world to Portugal, half to Spain. Just over the horizon, a world that most of us will never see, being degraded from the shore but also “under stress” from extraction and corruption…

    Where does all this lead? Maybe to a world that looks like this: https://off-guardian.org/2017/11/28/borneo-island-devastated-people-oblivious/

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