Plastic Pollution affecting Small Island Developing States (SIDS)

Plastic pollution is a global crisis needing a worldwide solution. SIDS suffer the most, facing waste on their shores and their own plastic generation. Urgent action is crucial, emphasises Emma Samson.
Plastic Pollution affecting Small Island Developing States (SIDS)
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Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are a distinct group of 39 States and 18 Associate Members of United Nations regional commissions that face unique social, economic and environmental vulnerabilities.

Plastic pollution is a global problem and one which desperately needs a global solution. However, SIDS are disproportionately impacted by plastic pollution and immensely vulnerable to its impacts. Not only do they have to contend with the tsunami of waste that washes up on their beaches, they must also deal with the plastic waste they generate themselves.

Heavily import-dependent, many islands receive tonnes of plastic packaging every day, and nothing ever leaves. Like the rest of the world, island populations have increased their plastic consumption year after year. Yet, there remain insufficient treatment facilities (including recycling centres) and ultimately limited land to store and process the resulting waste. Maintaining efficient waste disposal is also affected by fragile weather-sensitive environments and wide, seasonal variations in the volumes of waste produced. The need for change is not in question.

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Island Economies

Plastic pollution directly affects millions of people's health, livelihoods, food production capabilities, and social well-being, creating increasing economic instability on small islands. The islands' economies usually centre around tourism and fishing, two sectors negatively impacted by plastic pollution. Dirty beaches are less attractive to tourists, and marine litter can damage fish stocks and damage boats and ships. Coastal communities can suffer from reduced income and employment while shouldering clean-up operation costs. There is also an increased risk of flooding due to blocked stormwater systems and drainage, meaning higher maintenance costs for water infrastructure or reduced recreational opportunities. IUCN studies have shown the estimated economic impact of marine plastics on islands to be in the millions. For example, in Saint Lucia, the total direct costs to fisheries and tourism in 2019 were estimated to be between US$654,389 and US$1,356,666, not even including the ongoing impact on blue natural capital assets and marine biodiversity.

Solutions must focus upstream on production, and only legally binding global policies governing the entire plastic life cycle can hope to slow down production, which is on track to triple by 2050.

Plastic Waste-Free Islands

In 2019, with support from the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD), IUCN and Searious Business launched the Plastic Waste Free Islands (PWFI) project to analyse plastic value chains on six, large ocean small island states in the Caribbean and Pacific. The project sought to promote an island circular economy and demonstrate economically viable solutions to address plastic leakage and create job opportunities for local communities. The planned solutions focussed on tourism, fisheries and waste management sectors and included encouraging reusable packaging, PET bottle and fishing net closed-loop recycling, and waste-to-product design. The solutions were also designed to aid the drive for a green economic recovery following the Covid-19 pandemic. Several options and methodologies were proven to work well, but a holistic approach is needed in the long term. The project drew up a Blueprint, a freely available DIY document to enable all islands and remote region communities to rethink their plastic use.

It demonstrates how to:

  • Collect baseline data about waste generation
  • Develop a financing and action plan
  • Increase policy effectiveness for waste reduction
  • Unlock sector-level business opportunities
  • Create new value chains and job opportunities
  • Attract and inform investment, e.g., reuse and recycling

The Blueprint gives a solid step-by-step overview of how to avoid plastic pollution. Having a duplicable model greatly supports remote areas all over the world." - Willemijn Peeters, CEO & Founder, Searious Business.

Global Plastics Treaty for SIDS

While these solutions will reduce plastic leakage on individual islands, voluntary measures will have limited effect unless backed by global regulation and the financing that a strong UN Treaty on Plastics will provide. At the recent Intergovernmental Negotiations in Paris, small island leaders warned that they would 'choke on plastic' if urgent action is not taken to curb global plastic pollution. They are asking that their nations – the most at risk - are prioritised in the Treaty. 

'As a small island nation, Grenada's economic prosperity relies on our pristine natural environment - from tourism to fishing and marine industries,' said Kerryne James, the country's minister of climate resilience, environment and renewable energy.

80% of the marine plastic pollution that surrounds islands comes from land sources. Solutions must focus upstream on production, and only legally binding global policies governing the entire plastic life cycle can hope to slow down production, which is on track to triple by 2050.

The small, closed economies of SIDS mean that you can accurately determine the consequences of system changes. The best practices in the Plastic Waste-Free Island Blueprint can ultimately be applied on the mainland and used to inform the plastics treaty.

After all, the world is made up of islands, both big and small.

Learn more about OECD's work on Small Island Developing States - SIDS 

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