While the key focus at the 77th session of the Marine Environmental Protection Committee (MEPC), virtually hosted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) on 22-26 November 2021, was to strengthen ambitions to reduce GHG and black carbon emissions, the MEPC also addressed the mounting challenges of marine plastic litter.
MEPC 77 developed and adopted a strategy to tackle marine litter from shipping, which follows the adoption of the 2018 IMO Action Plan to Address Litter from Shipping. The ‘plastics’ working group at MEPC77 reviewed this strategy, vision, time-frames, and methods of work, agreeing on a comprehensive review in 2025. IMarEST delegates attended the plastics working group to support these discussions and Stephanie Lavelle, Chair of IMarEST Ocean Plastics & Marine Litter Special Interest Group (SIG) shares the SIG overview here:
Engaging with seafarers and the public
The IMO Action Plan has set out an ambitious target of achieving zero plastic waste discharges to sea from ships by 2025. The strategy aims to encourage monitoring and reduction of marine plastic litter from vessels, including fishing vessels, as well as improving the management of waste through port reception facilities.
In recognising the importance of education and outreach as a tool, the strategy also has ambitions to better engage with seafarers and the general public on this issue, as well as strengthening international cooperation and capacity-building. Initial steps for meeting these goals include a comprehensive study of litter from shipping. Furthermore, the GloLitter Partnerships Project, in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), will continue to build on these outputs and aims to identify opportunities for preventing and reducing marine plastic litter from shipping and fisheries.
A key publication released ahead of MEPC77 was the ‘Sea-based sources of marine litter’ report by the Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection (GESAMP), an advisory body to the United Nations. This report has provided an excellent baseline of knowledge, practical information and highlighted research gaps that need to be further addressed through mechanisms such as the IMO Action Plan. This SIG is keen to raise awareness of the challenges and gaps in knowledge raised in this report, with their current project on investigating cross-industry use and management of plastics aiming to build on these discussions.
Clear labelling of containers
During MEPC 77, several documents pertaining to follow up work emanating from the IMO Action Plan were considered. In particular an interesting submission by Sri Lanka shone a spotlight on the largest plastic spill ever recorded globally; the document reported on the May 2021 MV X-Press Pearl container that caught fire and spilled around 1,680 tonnes of plastic production pellets and 9,700 tonnes of potentially toxic epoxy resin onto the coastline of Sri Lanka. Pollution from this event has so far been found along around a 300km stretch of coastline and is expected to reach Indonesia, the Maldives and Somalia throughout the Monsoon season. Toxicity evaluation of the production pellets are underway, however, there has already been a major spike in turtle and dolphin deaths, exacerbating fears of eating fish, which is estimated to be affecting around 20,000 fishing families (UNEP, 2021). This document submitted by Sri Lanka highlights the hazardous nature of plastic pellets and the need to establish international guidelines and requirements for loading, unloading, packaging, and emergency response protocols, with clear labelling of containers carrying pellets, and improved stowage instructions. The MEPC referred this document to the Sub-committee on Pollution Prevention and Response for further discussion, along with proposals and regulatory approaches related to making the marking of fishing gear mandatory, which will help to improve both awareness of and standards for accountability of this type of litter.
Furthermore, MEPC 77 also considered a proposal to extend the requirement for ships to maintain a Garbage Record Book, to include ships less than 400 GT and equal to or greater than 100 GT, and tasked the PPR Sub-Committee to review and prepare draft amendments to MARPOL Annex V.
Action on marine plastic is desperately needed to address the undeniable and increasingly visible impact it is having on the marine environment. The IMarEST, through collaborative efforts of experts within the Ocean Plastic & Marine Litter Special Interest Group and other relevant SIGs, will remain involved in forthcoming discussions to support the ongoing development of the IMO Action Plan for Reducing Marine Plastic Litter from Ships. The next IMO meetings include PPR 9 from 4 to 8 April 2022, and MEPC 78 has been tentatively scheduled to take place from 6 to 10 June 2022.
“To become a corresponding member of this SIG, log into your My IMarEST account, click on My Special Interest Groups and then tick the boxes of the SIGs you’d like to join. You can then also join the group on Nexus, our networking platform.”
Stephanie Lavelle is Chair of the IMarEST Ocean Plastics & Marine Litter Special Interest Group