Blue Charter fellows to turn the tide on marine plastic

Blue Charter fellows have met in London to show how their research helps develop environment-friendly alternatives to disposable plastic, which will chart a better course for our planet.

They were attending a seminar hosted by the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) in partnership with the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Government of the United Kingdom.

The fellows are awardees of the Blue Charter Fellowships programme, which was created to support emerging Commonwealth scholars to explore solutions on marine pollution such as innovations to clean up the seas, sustainable alternatives to plastic and prevention of waste from entering the oceans.

The fellowship takes its name from the Commonwealth Blue Charter, a collective commitment of the 53 member countries to tackle the world’s shared ocean challenges, agreed by leaders at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in April 2018.

During discussions, fellows recognised a communication gap between the policy-makers and scientists on marine ecosystems. They said the findings of their research will bridge this gap and inform policy-making in Commonwealth countries on tackling plastic pollution.

Refilwe Mofokeng, a fellow from South Africa, who now pursues research at the University of Birmingham, described the fellowship as an ‘invaluable opportunity’. She said: “I can now conduct research on microplastic using modern equipment in a world-class lab which was not possible in my home country.”

Fellows from Africa, the Americas and the Asia Pacific regions presented research to officials, scientists and academics. Their solutions focussed on social awareness and technical research. They include:

  • examining the impact of microplastic on fish population;
  • assessing the absorption capacity of microplastic to toxicants such as detergents, hormones, etc.;
  • recycling polythene waste, such as plastic bags and pouches, to produce low-cost polymer-based paving blocks;
  • studying human attitude towards recycling and waste disposal in developing countries; and
  • understanding the impact of plastic clothes leaching out into the oceans.

Opening the seminar, Dr Joanna Newman, Secretary-General of the ACU, welcomed the Blue Charter fellows. She said: “Through our Blue Charter Fellowships, 38 researchers from 31 institutions in 12 countries across the Commonwealth are carrying out collaborative research into marine plastics at ACU member universities.”

Jeff Ardron, who leads the Commonwealth Blue Charter initiative, said: “Commonwealth countries generally share a common language, institutional designs, and legislative, regulatory and administrative processes which makes it easier for us to work together on policy issues such as plastic pollution.”

Both fellows and officials praised the Commonwealth Blue Charter. Julius Piercy, Team Leader at the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Areas, gave fellows updates on the action group on plastic pollution, which the UK and Vanuatu are leading.

“The action group on plastic pollution seeks to work with and complement other initiatives for co-operation on the global issues of protecting with world’s oceans. Twenty-four countries have joined it and up to £10m in aid funding has been made available to assist them to achieve their ambitions to target plastic pollutions,” Mr Piercy commented.

Commonwealth ocean action gains traction at COP24

“Real experiences” are what drove some Commonwealth countries to take up the banner for the ocean, stepping forward to champion action groups of like-minded members working together to tackle some of the world’s most pressing ocean problems.

When 53 countries agreed on the Commonwealth Blue Charter on ocean governance in April 2018, it inspired a new model for intergovernmental cooperation, whereby countries are invited to establish, join and drive voluntary and action-oriented alliances, based on their own shared priorities.

“This not about the Commonwealth or a high level body saying to countries, ‘Thou shall do this’, it was the countries themselves saying, ‘We get it, we want to work together with other countries to help fix it’,” said Commonwealth adviser on ocean governance Jeff Ardron.

Speaking at a side event at the UN Climate Change Conference COP24 this week, he said the Blue Charter links high level global commitments to on-the-ground implementation, a key theme at this year’s climate summit: “[Because it’s a voluntary-based initiative] only the countries who care about the issues join. So the most leading, most forward thinking, the most engaged countries in each of these topics are coming forward. This is a different model of global cooperation.”

Sri Lanka, for instance, vulnerable to disastrous tsunamis and storms, recognised the importance of coastal protection and stepped up to lead the action group on mangroves. Vanuatu, shocked at a study showing the amount of plastic polluting their coastal waters, volunteered to co-lead the action group on marine pollution with the United Kingdom. Fiji, a small island developing state in the Pacific, came forward to lead on ocean and climate change. To date, nine action groups have been set up, with varying membership.

At the event held at the COP24 UK pavilion, Deputy Director for Marine Policy at the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) Gemma Harper highlighted the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance co-led by the UK and Vanuatu.

“The UK, together with Vanuatu, is calling on other countries to pledge action on plastics, be this by a ban on microbeads a commitment to cutting down on single use plastic bags, or other steps to eliminate avoidable plastic waste,” she urged.

Vanuatu banned single use plastic bags, plastic straws and polystyrene food containers in July 2018.

“The Commonwealth Blue Charter is very important to us because it commits a number of counties to the same objectives. If Vanuatu were to do this alone it wouldn’t get very far. So by having the Blue Charter, we can commit the Commonwealth – already [covering] more than half of the oceans in the world,” said Vanuatu Foreign Affairs minister Ralph Regenvanu.

Earlier in the week, at another COP24 event hosted by the Nordic Cooperation, Mr. Ardron showcased fish leather designs from Kenya – the Blue Charter champion on blue economy – and the Faroe Islands. He announced that the Commonwealth, together with the Nordic Cooperation and the Food and Agricultural Organization, will launch a ‘blue fashion’ challenge in September to promote sustainability in the second most polluting industry in the world.

Commonwealth countries rally behind ocean action

A gathering hosted by the New Zealand High Commission at the Royal Academy of Arts in London on Monday, heard widespread support for the various action groups under the Blue Charter, which was unveiled by Commonwealth leaders at their last meeting in April.

Actions groups are led by ‘champion countries’ and focus on eight key areas: marine plastic pollution, blue economy, coral reef protection and restoration, mangroves, ocean acidification, ocean and climate change, ocean observations and aquaculture.

New Zealand Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage called the Blue Charter initiative a “model for bold, coordinated leadership.” As champion for the action group on ocean acidification,

New Zealand will focus on building a better understanding of the issue, identifying challenges, and connecting Commonwealth countries to ocean acidification networks.

“We are really impressed and pleased by the many Commonwealth countries that are involved in the action group [on ocean acidification],” said Hon Sage, acknowledging Australia, Barbados, Canada, Mozambique, Samoa, Seychelles, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and the UK.

Thérèse Coffey, Parliamentary Under Secretary at the UK’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Areas added: “The Blue Charter is so important, not only for Commonwealth countries, but for the entire world… I’m really proud to be working with Vanuatu taking forward action on the Clean Oceans Alliance and I’m very proud that we’re also joining other action groups.”

Alongside Vanuatu, the UK leads the action group on marine pollution, which includes 20 members in total from all regions of the Commonwealth.

“This is something that the Commonwealth can celebrate. I’m really pleased the Commonwealth Secretariat is continuing to make sure that these things come through, but together as nations we really can be champions for something that is exceptionally precious to us,” she said.

Special guest at the event, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Oceans, Peter Thomson, commended the “wave of ocean action” in the international community, and encouraged collaboration with the United Nations Communities on Ocean Action.

Delegates from Fiji and Australia also made presentations on their countries’ ocean activities. Fiji leads the action group on ocean and climate change, and is planning an event on the Blue Charter in the margins of the UN Climate Change Conference COP24, to be held in Poland in December.

Commonwealth Director of Trade, Oceans and Natural Resources, Paulo Kautoke recognised the crucial role of the ocean in Commonwealth economies, cultures and communities, and called on governments as well as non-government organisations to join the action groups and intensify collaboration on ocean issues.

 

 

Strong partners will deliver on Commonwealth Blue Charter, says Secretary-General

Protecting the ocean today is the best way of ensuring prosperity for future generations, says Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland.

Her remarks came at a session on the Commonwealth Blue Charter on sustainable ocean governance, held on the margins of the 49th Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru, which ran from 3 to 6 September 2018.

The Secretary-General applauded the leadership of Pacific nations and agencies on ocean and climate issues internationally, and Pacific regional agreements on ocean sustainability and governance, such as the ‘Blue Pacific’ framework for regionalism.

“The Blue Pacific Framework and Commonwealth Blue Charter go hand in glove as commitments that lead the world in working towards sustainable ocean governance,” she said.

She stressed that strong regional co-operation will be key to delivering on the charter.

The Commonwealth Blue Charter was adopted in April by Commonwealth heads of government and has eight action groups, including four that are championed or co-championed by Pacific countries.

Fiji leads the action group on ocean and climate change; Vanuatu and the UK co-champion the group on marine plastic pollution; New Zealand leads on ocean acidification; and Australia, along with Mauritius and Belize, leads the group on coral reef restoration.

“Now is the time to be reaching out to other governments and organisations to join action groups that reflect shared interests and priorities. This will only work if we work together,” said Nicholas Hardman-Mountford, Head of Oceans and Natural Resources at the Commonwealth Secretariat.

The session discussions highlighted a range of initiatives aimed at protecting the ocean and its resources, including from plastics in the waste stream.

A key example is legislation passed in Vanuatu to ban single-use plastic bags, plastic straws and polystyrene containers. The country began implementing the ban in July 2018. The Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) assisted with nation-wide awareness building, while the local plastics industry was exploring ways to reduce their impact on the environment.

Participants stressed that good communication strategies were essential to raising public awareness and engagement, as a change in the usual practices could not succeed without a change in attitude.

Pacific regional agencies also pointed out the importance of linking commitments with action, as well as working through existing mechanisms.

The Secretary-General underlined the value of joint action, and said the Commonwealth was keen to collaborate with other partners: “Each of our members is a member of a wider family. This is an opportunity for everyone, led by countries but embracing all of our friends, to deliver something that is better than we can do on our own”.

Learn more about the Blue Charter