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UN Environment declares war on ocean plastics


  Beach cleanup in Mumbai, India

The environment agency of the United Nations is urging governments to ban or tax plastic bags, restrict microplastic beads in cosmetics and take other actions against single-use packaging.

U.N. Environment kicked off the campaign on Feb. 23 targeting disposable plastics and ocean pollution.

The agency launched the Clean Seas campaign at the World Ocean Summit in Indonesia, headlining its announcement by saying that the "U.N. Declares War on Ocean Plastic." It said 10 countries signed on, including Indonesia, France and Norway.

The high-profile summit drew plastics industry executives like Covestro AG CEO Patrick Thomas, along with government officials and environmental groups, to Bali from Feb. 22-24. It was hosted by The Economist magazine.

The American Chemistry Council, which sent participants, said resin manufacturers are actively engaged in pilot programs to reduce plastics in the ocean and improve waste management in Asia Pacific.

"Scientific and political leaders have identified the need to improve land-based waste management -- particularly in rapidly industrializing economies -- as the single most important step we can take to reduce the flow of waste into the ocean," said Steve Russell, vice president of plastics at Washington-based ACC, in a statement.

While the U.N. agency may not have much direct regulatory power, it seems intent on using social media and other pulpits in what it called an "unprecedented global campaign to eliminate major sources of marine litter" -- microplastics in cosmetics and excessive single-use plastics -- by 2022.

United Nations officials said they hoped more countries would make commitments to reduce single-use plastic at a U.N. ocean conference in New York in early June.

"The ocean is the lifeblood of our planet, yet we are poisoning it with millions of tons of plastic every year," said Peter Thomson, president of the U.N. General Assembly. "I urge all [countries] to join the Clean Seas campaign and make an ambitious pledge to reduce single-use plastic. Be it a tax on plastic bags or a ban on microbeads in cosmetics, each country [can] do their bit."
The agency said governments should pass plastics-reduction policies and industry should work to minimize plastics packaging and redesign products. It called on consumers to "change their throwaway habits."

At the event, the U.N. said the government of Indonesia outlined plans to reduce by 70 percent the amount of trash the island nation sends to the marine environment by 2025.

It noted that Uruguay will begin taxing single-use plastics bags later this year and Costa Rica plans an effort to dramatically reduce single-use plastics through better waste management.

The U.N. said that 80 percent of litter in the oceans is plastic and the material causes at least $8 billion (55.1 billion RMB) in damage to marine ecosystems each year. It suggested problems will get worse, saying that plastics production is projected to grow three or four times by 2050.

"Keeping our seas clean and our marine life safe from plastic is a matter of urgency for Norway," said Vidar Helgesen, that country's minister of climate and the environment. "Marine plastic litter is a rapidly increasing threat to marine life, seafood safety and negatively affects the lives of people in coastal areas all around the world.

Russell, who attended the summit, said that while the industry is working to keep plastics from the oceans, he noted that polymers have environmental benefits that contribute to reducing greenhouse gases and food waste.

And he said that 70 plastics industry associations worldwide have signed a formal declaration on ocean pollution and support 260 projects to reduce plastics marine litter.

"We know there's much more to be done," Russell said. "Leaders from the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum are now calling for improved waste management, and our industry is partnering with other stakeholders to improve collection, containment, recycling and energy recovery in the region."

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