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On Lap Sap Wan, a Hong Kong beach, 30 volunteers collect empty drinking bottles, food packaging and styrofoam that has washed ashore.
No sooner has the clean-up finished, however, then the incoming tide dumps a similar pile of litter on the 100m-long stretch of coast that has earned the nickname “Rubbish Bay”. Coastal Watch, a coalition of environmental groups, estimated that in 2015, 12m pieces of litter were dumped on Lap Sap Wan beach, 90 per cent of which were plastic.
Lap Sap Wan is far from unique. Some 8m tonnes of plastic, and possibly 50 per cent more than this, was dumped in the sea globally in 2010, according to research undertaken in the US. This is equivalent to one lorry load every minute, the UN environmental agency said.
Now efforts are being accelerated to tackle the issue. This week several heads of state and scores of environment ministers are expected to agree for the first time to take global action against plastic polluting the world’s seas at an annual meeting of the UN environment agency in Nairobi.
Environment officials hope ministers will agree to start developing measures to police marine litter management. They also want nations and regions to set individual plastic waste reduction targets for the first time.
“We need to explore how the legal and structural framework for international co-operation could be better designed,” says Mai Britt Knoph, a senior adviser in Norway’s environment ministry, which is proposing the measure. “This calls for a structured process that can take the issue forward.”
Erik Solheim, executive director of the UN environment agency, describes the problem of marine pollution as “Armageddon in the making”.
“We will have the same weight of plastic as fish in the sea by 2050 if this continues,” he says. “It’s all over the place, even in northern Norway, hundreds of miles from human habitation.”
The UN estimates there were 480bn plastic bottles in the world last year, a number that will grow to 583bn by 2021.
More than half of the plastic polluting oceans originates from five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka, according to the research carried out in the US in 2015. Experts say it is the only credible scientific study that has examined the scale of the problem.
If the trend continues, in 2025 the annual amount of plastic being dumped in the sea could be as high as 28m tonnes, says Jenna Jambeck, associate professor at the University of Georgia, who led the US research. By 2050, 99 per cent of seabirds will have ingested plastic, according to the UN.
Some governments are starting to act on plastics but experts say the problem is global and co-ordinated action is required.
Taiwan, for example, has imposed plastic levies on 14 industries and more than 90,000 shops. From mid-2018 plastic microbeads will be banned in cosmetics. But the island’s marine crisis is “urgent and getting worse”, according to Greenpeace.
“Now, the seasonal wind is very strong so the whole north coastline is covered with plastic bottles or cups,” says Yen Ning, a Greenpeace oceans campaigner. “Some are from Taiwan but most are from China.”
Some businesses are also taking action. Following two years of research, Dell, the computer manufacturer, has decided to use about 70 tonnes of ocean plastic waste a year in its packaging and is scouting sites in Indonesia and India to start the programme.
“The more we studied the issue we realised it’s not just the impact ocean plastic waste has on marine life but throughout the food chain,” says Piyush Bhargava, Dell’s vice-president of global operations. “If you look at the exponential growth in plastic production and limited recycled content it’s a maths equation that doesn’t solve itself.”
“It’s about design of packaging, collection and recycling,” says Ben Jordan, the head of environment policy at Coca-Cola. “We need to develop a more holistic strategy that encompasses the whole life of the packaging.”
Ms Jambeck believes the world is approaching a “tipping point” on ocean plastic waste. “What makes this issue very different is it’s very tangible,” she says. “You go to your favourite beach and see plastic washing up. You look down and it’s around your feet.”
But while she is “really optimistic”, she accepts progress is not guaranteed.
“Population growth and economic growth are coupled and it means there will be a lot more waste being produced in the years to come.”
This post originally appeared on Financial Times