In every marine and coastal environment on earth, plastic litter threatens the environment, human health, and business. The threat has been exacerbated by a spike in the use of single-use plastics due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the High-Level Political Forum this week, UNEP within its Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities/Global Partnership on Marine Litter (GPA/GPML) convened key global actors – from government and the private sector – working on combatting marine litter through a crucial front: Engaging industry.
To date, involvement by industry has been a mixed bag. While some industrial actors are seen as historic culprits of ocean pollution, others are innovating on modes of production and consumption, waste management and digital approaches. UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen acknowledged that “Industry has a real opportunity to step up, lean in, and take responsibility.”
Simon Bennett, whose China Navigation Company and Swire Pacific Offshore Operations are leaders in the field of waste management through the Moana Taka Partnership, echoed her: “We need business to make this our day job.” Nicholas Holmes of IBM talked of SAM, an “AI human who lives on the internet” and can spend his time providing guidance to people about how to prevent marine litter. SAM is part of a larger digital toolkit being developed by UNEP, GPML, Science-Policy-Business Forum, and the Citizen Science Global Partnership. It involves data integration tools and multi-sector collaboration platforms to share information on marine litter.
There was consensus that we are entering a new phase of engagement with industry, one that governments are keen to scale. Dag-Inge Ulstein, Norway’s Minister of International Development, spoke of his government’s upcoming report on how industry can create the framework for healthy oceans, while H.E. Wallace Cosgrow, Seychelles’ Minister of Environment and Co-Chair of GPML noted that because “the entire value chain of plastic is a trans-boundary issue,” we must work to merge the disparate work being done on the ground into a shared vision.”
Lorna Innis, Coordinator of the Caribbean Environment Programme and Cartagena Convention Secretariat of Africa, made a call to action to unite private and public-sector interests: “We need to make real space, not token space, for industry and private sector actors,” she said. “Industry and the private sector have indicated they are ready. We need to open the door.”