Stronger together: The role of regional instruments in strengthening global governance of marine plastic pollution

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Numerous voluntary measures, national, regional, and global efforts have been implemented, indicating the urgency and willingness to address the global plastic pollution. Still, plastic litter streams continue to enter our marine and coastal environment, and these streams are expected to continue to grow. 


Nicole Wienrich, Laura Weiand, Sebastian Unger


  • Several regional instruments have been implemented to combat marine plastic pollution, such as regional seas conventions and actions plans, large marine ecosystem activities and programs, and activities by regional economic organizations or regional fisheries bodies. 
  • Challenges with these efforts are linked to the level of implementation, the regional ability to measure and monitor efforts, the ability to function on a multi-stakeholder level as well as the ability to effectively engage the private sector. 
  • The IASS delivers a clear recommendation on the four identified challenge areas, in short- and long-term scopes, with clear directions on which contributions would be valuable for global governance of marine plastic pollution, and a potential new global agreement. 


How regional instruments address marine plastic pollution

The analysis focuses on Regional Seas Conventions and Action Plans (RSCAPs), Large Marine Ecosystem (LME) activities, Regional Economic Organizations (REOs) and Regional Fisheries Bodies (RFBs).

The current roles and main contributions of the four analyzed regional instruments towards addressing marine plastic pollution are:

  • Regional Seas Conventions and Action Plans
  • Large Marine Ecosystem Activities
  • Regional Economic Organizations
  • Regional Fisheries Bodies

Main challenges and gaps of identified instruments

In order to strengthen the existing efforts, IASS identifies four challenges that need to be addressed:

Firstly, the level of implementation of policies, programmes, action plans and projects relevant to the area varies significantly across the different regions, and in some regions it does not exist. This is due to the natural difference in jurisdiction, governance and capacities, but some areas also fall entirely outside the mandate of any regional instruments. A common challenge across regional instruments is the access to finances and human resources with the necessary capacity to successfully implement programs and monitor compliance. 

Secondly, the structures for monitoring and assessment are not coherent, and exists only as sporadic assessments. Only a few regions implement long-term monitoring and assessment programmes with comparable data on marine plastic litter, and in most regions, reporting is descriptive and not based on clear targets and indicators. This hinders a common knowledge base for management measures and harmonized monitoring approaches. 

Third, the required multi-stakeholder approach to address marine plastic pollution is in its nature difficult to organize. The results of a survey carried out as part of the IASS research indicated that regional organizations had difficulties engaging with the broad range of stakeholders from the government, private sector, NGOs, and academia at national, regional and international levels. This is partly due to limited capacities for continuous, sustainable engagement with relevant actors.

This limited engagement, especially from private sector, is brought forward as the last main challenge identified by the authors. As owners of the production and waste handling processes, the sector is a crucial stakeholder in addressing the problem. The inability of the sector to engage is overall weak, caused by distributed responsibility and thus distributed financial capacity to improve waste management and innovate for change. 

The authors go through a case study from the Mediterranean and give specific recommendations for this region. However, on an overall level the identified challenges vary from region to region and from organization to organization, calling for an in-depth assessment of challenges in each region to give specific recommendations.  

General recommendations for regional and global action

A global action plan for marine litter would entail coherent governance across levels, harmonized implementation and global common objectives. This would level the playing field for all, engage the regions with limited action today, and also enable shared best-practices and spread of technology.

A globally agreed Plan of Action or Voluntary Guidelines could also be useful in encouraging institutional, legal and policy reforms at the regional and national level and spur the political will needed to initiate the development of a regional response in regions where it is still missing.

The authors suggest a built-in funding mechanism in the global agreement financed by member states, the private sector, as well as intergovernmental financial institutions. A global agreement would also ensure common guidelines and legal frameworks on important areas that are not manageable on national levels, such as product design in the international market, discharges from ships in international waters and global liability and compensation for plastic pollution.

The authors go on to provide specific recommendations for regional and global action on each of the identified challenge areas.

The authors see a new global agreement as highly beneficial in promoting and harmonizing efforts at the global, regional and national level. This could provide an overarching, comprehensive strategy, with common objectives and minimum standards, shared indicators and assessment methodologies that could enable global reviews and assessments.  

“A new global agreement could provide a great opportunity for addressing the identified challenges in an integrated manner.”

The timeline for such an agreement is not discussed by IASS, but the institute underlines the need for rapid development to meet current challenges for our oceans. The analysis is also too broad to give specific recommendations for the regional level. Rather, it is to be seen as a recommendation for the global agreement to strengthen existing instruments from the global to the local level, in order to address marine plastic litter in an integrated manner.

Full publication available here.

Watch Nicole Wienrich’ presentation of the report: