Reducing plastic pollution requires local remedies

The new global treaty to end plastic pollution should consider support for on-the-ground initiatives that remove and recycle waste. A disconnect between international plans and local realities can thwart progress and breed cynicism.

Clean currents coalition_Juan Diaz River_pollution
The "Wanda" trash-trapping wheel removes a flush of trash from the Juan Díaz River unleashed by a rain event. Image: Clean Currents Coalition

As the United Nations enters the final stretch of negotiations for a new treaty to end plastic pollution, governments must work to ensure that the agreement not only reduces plastic production, but also strengthens local initiatives to remove and recycle existing plastic waste.

Consider the Juan Díaz River, which runs through my hometown of Panama City. Tonnes of plastic – bottles and other detritus – bob in the river’s currents, owing to poor waste management. Faced with this problem, Marea Verde (“Green Tide”), a non-profit organisation that I co-founded, has installed a trash-trapping water wheel – dubbed the “Wanda” device – that now collects much of this waste before it reaches the ocean.

Local initiatives are necessary to achieve global climate goals. This is especially true for eliminating plastic pollution, which is largely driven by local consumption decisions. The new UN treaty, in my view, should thus balance top-down efforts to reduce plastic production and ban the use of toxic chemicals in these products with support for on-the-ground efforts to recycle, reuse, or transform in a sustainable way the billions of tonnes of plastic already clogging the world’s waterways and harming the environment. Otherwise, the ocean will contain more plastics than fish by 2050, and new diseases caused by microplastics – which have already been detected in human blood – could become commonplace.

So far, stakeholders are split on how best to proceed. During the latest round of treaty negotiations, held in Nairobi last November, the plastics industry and some oil- and petrochemical-exporting countries called for more emphasis on recycling and reuse, while environmental campaigners and other governments advocated curbs on production. To reach a consensus by late 2024, the two sides must be brought into alignment and agree on an integrated approach that links global goals to local action.

Working in government and nonprofits, I have experienced first-hand how a disconnect between international plans and on-the-ground realities can thwart progress and breed cynicism. That is why we at Marea Verde adapt ideas that have been successfully implemented elsewhere – from the United States to Nigeria and Australia – to our context and culture.

For example, our Wanda device is based on Clearwater Mills’ trash wheels, a clean-energy technology that debuted in the US but is customised for a tropical ecosystem. Over the past year, Wanda has collected more than 130 tonnes of trash from the Juan Díaz River – a more effective intervention than fishing plastics from the sea or beach cleanups. Replicating this model worldwide could dramatically reduce land-sourced debris, which accounts for 80 per cent of ocean plastic pollution.

Fortunately, many other organisations are focusing on river cleanup to prevent new plastic waste from entering the ocean. Eight of these groups – including Marea Verde – are participating in the Clean Currents Coalition, a network of projects that are piloting innovative waste-removal technologies in river communities around the world. Coalition members can share knowledge and work collaboratively while also encouraging and facilitating effective on-the-ground action.

The plastic crisis is a result of human activities, and solving it calls for behavioral change, which can be accomplished only through initiatives that engage local communities. For example, Marea Verde organises and empowers residents in areas without recycling facilities by going door to door to collect plastic waste. As a result, many people have become aware of their ability to improve their surroundings, leading them to participate in neighborhood cleanups, reclaim green spaces, and lobby for better waste management.

Moreover, the lack of local data in many developing countries, including Panama, can make it difficult to design climate policies that are fit for purpose. That is why Marea Verde is also building databases on the volume and types of plastic trash in Panama’s rivers, which will improve reporting, help urban planning, and demonstrate the scale of the crisis.

Efforts to counter plastic pollution must be equal to the size of the problem. To that end, the new UN treaty should include severe curbs on plastic production to choke off output and give clean-up efforts a fighting chance. But it must also support the local groups at the forefront of tackling the plastic problem. These groups’ innovative strategies, tools, and data-gathering practices can serve as a model for the global community. This is not an either/or decision: both international regulations and local action are needed. The latter is already underway and is making a difference, one community and one river at a time.

Mirei Endara de Heras, a former environment minister of Panama, is co-founder and chairwoman of the board of Marea Verde, a Panama-based nonprofit addressing global plastic pollution through local action.

© Project Syndicate 1995–2024

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