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Magazine spread featuring protestors holding signs on a lawn


by Lurline Wailana McGregor

When the last of its four counties implemented laws to ban plastic bags from store checkouts in 2021, Hawaiʻi became the first in the nation with a full statewide ban. Since then, the City and County of Honolulu and Maui County have expanded their bans to include all takeout plastic and Styrofoam foodware, mandating two of the strongest plastic laws nationwide.

While this is a significant effort in reducing the land-based plastic waste that often ends up on shorelines and in the ocean, it doesn’t address the estimated 15-20 tons of marine debris—mostly plastics—that piles up on Hawaiian coastlines every year. Fishing gear and consumer products that have deteriorated into micro- and macro-plastics are carried across the ocean by Pacific currents and deposited not only onto Hawaiʻi’s beaches, but onto the shores of islands throughout the Pacific. While taking local initiative to end plastic pollution is important, global efforts are required to have a meaningful impact on cleaning up our shorelines and ocean.

There is overwhelming evidence of global harm to ecosystems, wildlife, and human health. In March 2022, the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) of the United Nations Environment Programme adopted Resolution 5/14: “End plastic pollution: Towards an international legally binding instrument.” Previous to 5/14, several UNEA resolutions had been adopted addressing plastic pollution, including resolutions affirming the urgent need to strengthen global coordination, cooperation, and governance to take immediate action towards the long-term elimination of plastic pollution in marine and other environments. Resolution 5/14 calls on UN Member States to complete, by the end of 2024, the negotiation of a global agreement to end plastic pollution, including in the marine environment. The United Nations Development Programme calls this the most important multilateral environmental pact since the Paris Agreement on climate change, and the decisions made during these negotiations will transform the way we produce, consume, and dispose of plastics.

The momentum gained from the adoption of the previous UNEA resolutions has laid a solid foundation

for working towards implementation of Resolution 5/14. Five meetings are slated to be held over the course of the negotiations. The first meeting of the International Negotiating Committee (INC-1) was held in November 2022 in Uruguay, and was attended by over 2,300 participants and stakeholder groups from 160 countries. The meeting concluded with a request to the INC Secretariat to prepare a paper outlining options of what could be included in a plastics treaty. The options would be based on a comprehensive approach addressing the full life cycle of plastics and would include the views and concerns expressed during INC-1, including written submissions from member states, stakeholders, and stakeholder groups. These stakeholder groups include both those with environmental interests as well as plastics manufacturers, including oil companies, that have an economic interest in continuing to produce plastics.

The second meeting, INC-2, was held in Paris during the last week of May 2023. Despite delaying tactics of oil-producing and plastic industry members and their stakeholders, delegates reviewed each of the options. A “zero draft” or first attempt of a treaty was presented at INC-3 in Kenya in November 2023, and the work will continue through intersessional work to present the agreed-upon components in a treaty format.

Kristine Kubat, the executive director of Recycle Hawaiʻi, was invited by the U.S. State Department to attend INC-2 as a representative of a “civil society unit,” which refers to organizations recognized by the United Nations Department of Global Communications to help disseminate information and provide analysis and expertise. Although she was an observer, she was allowed into the plenary sessions.

“One of the consensus items so far is concern about microplastic pollution,” said Kubat. “That was one of the areas where all the different countries said yes, they wanted to see something in the treaty that would restrict the intentional use of microplastics and products. If at the end of this, there are some 120 nations around the world that have all agreed amongst themselves to ban certain kinds of plastics, it would amount to a global boycott. It would have a global impact on the plastics market, and that would be quite effective. The other thing that was very encouraging was to see Indigenous people rising up and getting involved.”

Indigenous participation is especially significant because Indigenous people are least responsible for the pollution, yet often suffer the worst impacts of plastic and chemical pollution. According to the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), a regional organization whose purpose is to protect and manage the environment and natural resources of the Pacific, Pacific Islands contribute less than 1.3 percent of global plastic pollution. Yet, Pacific Island populations are disproportionately affected, with the Pacific Ocean increasingly inundated with the bulk of the world’s plastic waste.

Her Excellency Ilana Seid, chair of the Pacific Small Islands Developing States (PSIDS) and Ambassador of Palau to the United Nations, said in her remarks at the plenary of INC-2: “We call to reduce the global production, use, and discharge of plastics across their life cycle, including through the promotion of a safe, circular economy to end plastic pollution by 2040 and protect human health and the environment from its adverse effects. We must consider banning problematic and avoidable plastic products, microplastics, and chemicals of concern. As noted by the UNEP Executive Secretary, ‘We cannot recycle our way out of this.’”

Dr. Eileen Nalley is the ocean and coastal ecosystem health specialist with the University of Hawaiʻi Sea Grant College Program. Her program was recently funded by NOAA’s National Sea Grant Office to develop a Pacific Islands Marine Debris Community Action Coalition (Coalition) that will include U.S. territories and affiliates.

“It’s a diverse group of partners that we’re trying to bring together to share knowledge, identify local issues, and then start to collaborate, to develop these more regional solutions to the problems,” says Nalley. “The Pacific Islands, broadly speaking, have been vastly underserved in terms of marine debris and environmental contamination research, so we are excited to be working towards addressing this long standing issue and filling in some of the existing data gaps.”

The Coalition seeks to understand the magnitude of the problem and the breadth of the impacts across the Pacific Islands collectively. In addition to plastic pollution and marine debris, her broader research program also includes associated impacts related to land-based pollutants (i.e., bottles, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals).

Mark Manuel is the Pacific Islands regional coordinator for the Marine Debris Program under NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, which includes the Hawaiian archipelago, Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, and the U.S. Pacific Island territories. “We have a great marine debris community here in Hawaiʻi,” says Manuel. “We provide funding support to groups that are focused on larger debris items, like derelict fishing gear or abandoned or lost vessels. In the Pacific, we have funded all sorts of removal projects.”

Manuel says there is not adequate data collection to measure the impact of Hawaiʻi’s plastic ban laws on local coastlines, which could strengthen the argument for stricter laws locally and internationally if the effectiveness of such bans can be proven. Nevertheless, and most importantly, a global agreement to end plastic pollution is a crucial component in educating people about the deleterious health and environmental impacts of plastics as it reaches mitigating solutions to this worldwide problem.


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