Every year, over 300 million tons of plastic are produced, half of which is used to design single-use items such as shopping bags, cups and straws. At least 13 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans every year and make up more than 80% of all marine debris from surface waters to deep-sea sediments.
The bad news is that once released into our oceans, plastic never goes away. This is plastic leakage. It does not biodegrade. It simply fragments into small particles. Plastic pollution has a significant negative social, economic and ecological impact. Marine plastics threaten ocean health, human health, food safety and coastal tourism as well as contribute to climate change.
Plastic gets into our food and water, and is a serious health hazard.
Plastic kills an estimated one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals each year.
Plastic pollution costs a minimum of $13 billion annually in damage to marine ecosystems
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But the good news is that we can take action to turn these problems into solutions.
IUCN has made significant progress in methodologies for quantifying this plastic leakage and providing solutions for action to tackle plastic pollution at source. We need to close the plastic tap! It is everybody’s responsibility: Governments, industry and civil society. IUCN brings these stakeholders together to increase knowledge to influence policy and to take real action.
Picture used by permission.
PLOVER ROVERS: Lynn, first of all we'd like to know what exactly is the IUCN and how do you work?
IUCN is a membership Union composed of 208 States and government agencies, 1200+ NGOs and indigenous peoples’ organisations. The IUCN harnesses the experience, resources and reach of its members in over 160 countries, along with the input of more than 17,000 experts. This diversity and expertise makes IUCN the global authority on the status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it. IUCN, because of this structure, is the ideal platform for change. IUCN has observer status at the UN and is able to influence policy at multilateral, regional and national levels, primarily by building consensus. More information on our work with the UN here.
PLOVER ROVERS: Could you tell us a little bit about the IUCN’s “Close the Plastic Tap” programme - what area does it cover and what are its overarching goals?
Lynn: IUCN’s programme of work on marine plastics has focused principally on seeking solutions to close the plastic tap and tackle plastic pollution at its source. This involves the mobilisation of a wide range of stakeholders including governments, industries and society. An overarching goal of the IUCN Plastics Programme is to enable a variety of global and local stakeholders and enhance their understanding of the plastic pollution problem through research and the compilation of the latest science and data on the issue.
IUCN has been working on plastic pollution issues since 2014. It all started in Europe in the Baltic and Mediterranean, and has now expanded to 14 countries and 4 continents.
Our countries of work for current and recent projects include Antigua & Barbuda, Grenada, and St. Lucia in the Caribbean; Fiji, Vanuatu, and Samoa in Oceania; The Azores, the Baltic Region, Cyprus and Menorca in the Mediterranean; Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa and Tanzania in Eastern and Southern Africa; and Thailand and Viet Nam in Southeast Asia. IUCN Plastics is also active in several high-level international and regional fora such as the United Nations, the Nairobi convention, and others. A complete list of our projects is here.
PLOVER ROVERS: How do you aim to quantify the plastic “output”? Which different categories of plastic litter do you distinguish?
One example is the ‘National Guidance for Plastic Pollution Hotspotting and Shaping Action’ which aims to provide a methodology for countries to identify plastic leakage ‘hotspots’, find their impacts along the entire plastic value chain, and then prioritise effective actions to stop the leakage at each hotspot. The primary users of the Guidance are governments. They can use the results of the analysis to design, plan and implement policy instruments and actions to reduce plastic pollution.
The tools provided to perform hotspot assessments are (1) Input tools with data collection templates and generic data libraries, (2) Assessment tools to carry out the necessary modelling and calculations, and (3) Output tools that generate graphs with results and support the user in drawing conclusions. Within the tools, the polymers covered are Polypropylene (PP), Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), Polystyrene (PS), Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), High Density Polyethylene (HDPE), Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE), polyester and synthetic rubber and clusters other polymer types in a category labelled “other”. This polymer hotspot information could typically inform and help prioritise the improvement of the waste collection and management at a national, sub-national or local level, including recycling strategies.
Another IUCN useful set of tools is The Plastic Footprint, which offers a method for calculation. Plastic leakage starts during production, moves through transport to consumer usage, waste, and finally, the leakage of plastic into the world's oceans. This plastic leakage is known as the Marine Plastic Footprint. This report offers, for the first time, a comprehensive framework to measure that Footprint, step-by-step, using a life-cycle perspective. Generic data is given that can be used to calculate this leakage for a defined list of identified sources, including plastic waste, textile fibres, tyre dust, micro beads in cosmetics, fishing nets, and others.
PLOVER ROVERS: Will the project equally address land-based and sea-based litter sources?
All of the IUCN Plastics projects within the Close the Plastic Tap programme have components that address the source-to-sea, land-based plastic pollution issue, yes. For example, in the MARPLASTICCs project, one of the components is Circular Economy (CE) projects. In each of the five countries the CE projects there are holistic approaches to plastic pollution issues.
PLOVER ROVERS: What are the approaches you use to achieve the “Mind-shift” you are looking to see?
IUCN plastics projects aim to shift the thinking around plastic pollution by creating a space and environment that enables governments, industry and civil society to access the knowledge, build their capacity, and develop policy options and plans to control plastic pollution. A holistic systems-based approach to building awareness and outreach, that can be replicated and expanded to several countries. Several of the Close the Plastic Tap projects are long-term and designed to be sustainable for ongoing action after initial funding is provided. Projects that enable local actors yet also work with national and regional networks and groups rather than a top down approach require a mind-shift away from these traditional to-down approaches, and a change in the roles of everyone involved.
PLOVER ROVERS: What is the time-frame and how will the success be measured?
IUCN’s Close the Plastic Programme is ongoing with new projects and ongoing projects – some are 1-3 years in length and others are longer-term. Strategically, the IUCN Plastics Programme has been active for nearly a decade, and will continue to grow in scope and influence over the coming years.
At a higher level, all of IUCN’s work contributes to its programme that is determined by its membership every 4 years. Within the plastics programme, our work contributes to these higher goals. Success indicators at the programme level are determined by our contribution to the programme results. Within projects, we have an established Monitoring and Evaluation system that is based on results frameworks and Theory of Change, and uses a variety of tools to monitor and document our learning through self-evaluation and external evaluations. Individual projects have outputs and indicators on which progress is tracked.
PLOVER ROVERS: Lynn, thank you so much for this interview!
Lynn surveying at the Menai Strait in 2017, picture used by permission.