The ocean plastic crisis is Wales’ chance to take the plunge

On World Oceans Day, Tony Juniper calls on the Welsh Government to step up the scale of action to protect the marine environment

Loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) trapped in a drifting abandoned net, Mediterranean Sea. © / Jordi Chias / WWF 

Today is World Oceans Day, an event aimed at celebrating and protecting our seas, and this year’s focus is on preventing plastic pollution.

This week I have been in Wales to speak at the Volvo Ocean Summit, which brought together governments, businesses, scientists and others to explore solutions to the plastic pollution crisis.

Tony Juniper WWF speaking at Volvo Ocean Summit – © Caitlin Nelson / WWF Cymru

As well as being home to amazing wildlife, we rely on our seas to meet our basic human needs. About a billion people rely on fish as their main source of animal proteins. Our seas absorb CO2, marine plankton replenish oxygen in our atmosphere and seed the clouds that produce the rains which sustain life. And the Blue Economy is estimated to be the world’s seventh largest economy, totalling many trillions of dollars, including from the leisure sector that depends on healthy oceans.

Oceans play a big part in the life of people in Wales. The country’s marine area is larger than its land. Over 60% of the population live and work on the coast, and coastal and marine businesses contribute over £6.8bn to the economy.

Yet we are putting our precious oceans, and in turn our way of life, under serious threat.

Plastic ocean pollution – plastic bag and rubbish floating in ocean. © Shutterstock / Rich Carey / WWF

About 8 million tonnes of plastic debris is being added to the marine environment each year – the equivalent of a 1 dump truck every minute.

Shocking images of litter covering beaches and filling the stomachs of marine creatures have sparked outrage and inspired action.

But while there is no more visible example of the global havoc we’re causing to the planet than plastic, this is just one part of the picture.

The biggest threat to our oceans is actually from greenhouse gases, which are causing acidification and warming. Pollution and overfishing are also major problems to the health of our oceans.

We haven’t valued nature enough and we’ve damaged our oceans as a result. Tackling our ocean’s health is part of what must be our wider mission to protect the natural world we depend.

This brings us to the question of what we can do. All countries can take practical action. Switching to renewable energy, cutting pollution and building a circular economy will help safeguard and restore our seas.

So where does Wales fit in?

The Welsh Government has already recognised the need to act in the interests of both current and future generations, both at home and overseas. Uniquely in the UK, it has put this into law through the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, and the environment is at the heart of this law.

If we’re to truly value our ecosystems, including our oceans, then governments need to put restoring nature at the centre of all their decisions.

The high profile issue of plastic pollution will be one measure of how Wales’ groundbreaking law is driving changes.

Welsh Government is already taking some impressive action on waste, including some positive moves on plastics.

What we’re expecting to see now is Cardiff Bay stepping up the pace and scale of action, and showing leadership. We want to see a UK ban on avoidable single use plastic by 2025. It would be fantastic if Wales, with its unique sustainability legislation, can move faster than other nations to deliver this (like it did on the carrier bag charge) and push Westminster to act too.

Right across Wales, people, communities and businesses are taking action to cut the use of single use plastic. ‘Zero waste’ shops are opening and communities and businesses committing to phase out unnecessary packaging. Aberporth’s plastic-free initiative is just one example of many grassroots projects.

And people will expect Welsh Government to also play its part in addressing this crisis, building on recent commitments to support recycling, and alternatives such as water bottle refills.

Taking action on a single issue like plastic waste will have a positive impact, but it won’t be enough on its own.

Welsh Government – with its sustainability laws in place – should now build the environment into all its policies and programmes.

Ministers in Cardiff Bay are beginning to recognise the changes that are needed, although far more still needs to be done. There is nowhere more obvious than in relation to economic policies. For example, despite the aims of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, the ‘Prosperity for All’ economic strategy is largely an environment-free zone. It includes decarbonisation but misses out the big role business could be playing around wider environmental impacts. The Volvo Ocean Summit heard from businesses at the fore front of sustainability.  Any new ‘Economic Contract’ must place environmental requirements on businesses which receive Government support, encouraging them on this same path.

Perhaps in order to do this we will need a new economic idea?  

One that strikes me as on the right track is the idea of ‘environmental growth’. That is, growing the health of the environment as a core economic strategy. Healthy environmental assets support our wellbeing across the board, from the soils, bees and freshwater that sustains our food supply, to the stunning coasts that attract tourists, to the trees and birds that make us feel better and well. Growing the health of all these assets can only make us better off. The same goes for the ocean and the protection of its ‘blue economy’ assets.

If Wales doesn’t start getting things right on these issues, including through strategies that place nature at the heart of economic decision making, then the widely acclaimed legislation that placed Wales at the forefront of law-making for sustainability will come to be seen as a good idea that didn’t make a difference.

The crucial step that needs to be made at this stage is implementation of the great legislative framework that is in place. That in turn will rest upon the appetite for Welsh politicians to adopt leadership, ambition and imagination in how they approach the decisions that will shape all our futures.

On World Oceans Day, as Wales celebrates the Year Of The Sea and its fantastic coastline, the time is right to take the plunge and show the world what is possible when nature really matters.


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Tony Juniper is Executive Director for Advocacy and Campaigns at WWF-UK

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