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Ministers and delegates at the G20 meeting in Karuizawa, Japan, on Saturday. Photo: Kyodo/Reuters

G20 agrees on international framework to reduce marine plastic pollution

  • Agreement is voluntary and will rely on members coming up with solutions and reporting their own progress

The Group of 20 major economies agreed on Sunday to create an international framework that calls on members to take voluntary steps to reduce plastic pollution in the ocean, one of the world’s most pressing environmental threats.

The agreement came after a two-day meeting of G20 environment and energy ministers at which discussions also focused on energy security after attacks on two oil tankers in the Middle East that sparked a surge in oil prices.

A beach on the Cocos Islands. Photo: Silke Struckenbrock/University of Tasmania/AFP

“Marine litter, especially marine plastic litter and microplastics, is a matter requiring urgent action given its adverse impacts on marine ecosystems, livelihoods, and industries including fisheries, tourism, and shipping, and potentially on human health,” said a communique issued after the meeting in the central Japan resort town of Karuizawa.

Japanese Environment Minister Yoshiaki Harada, who co-chaired the meeting, called the agreement a “major achievement” in the lead-up to a G20 leaders’ summit later this month.

“We will continue to vigorously seek solutions to such global issues,” he told a press conference.

The ministers stressed the importance of realising a “virtuous cycle” of environmental protection and economic growth, driven by “breakthrough innovation” in the private sector with support from governments.

Debris and plastic litter found on Christmas Island, Australia. Photo: Reuters

But the participants were not on the same page on all of the environmental issues, with the United States, which has announced its withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, refusing to endorse a commitment in the communique to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The document ended up suggesting that countries, excluding the United States, reaffirm promises to implement the accord.

“There are countries that would like to go make some statements on the Paris climate accord in these documents here this weekend. I don’t know that that’s really the appropriate place for that discussion,” Andrew Wheeler, head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, told reporters before the release of the communique.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Photo: Washington Post

Discussions on plastic waste were much less fraught, with the ministers in agreement that the issue needs to be quickly addressed.

Under the G20 framework, each country will report progress on the voluntary measures they take and share solutions.

Plastic waste that ends up in the oceans often ensnares or is ingested by marine animals such as dolphins and sea turtles. Microplastics measuring less than 5 millimetres and can be found in fish, making them toxic for humans.

Plastic bottles found on a beach in Hong Kong. Photo: Facebook

About 300 million tons of plastic waste is produced every year, of which 8 million tons end up in the world’s oceans, according to the United Nations. Most of that waste comes from Asian countries including G20 members China and Indonesia, although environmentalists say most of the waste is produced by Western companies.

Japanese industry minister Hiroshige Seko, who co-chaired the meeting with Harada, announced on Saturday that his country will aim to require businesses to charge for disposable shopping bags by next April to help reduce waste.

Many countries in the world already charge for single-use bags or ban them outright.

The communique also made reference to the attacks Thursday on two tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, an incident that reignited concern over tensions in the Middle East and sent global oil prices jumping.

Citing “recent developments highlighting concern about energy security,” the ministers stressed the importance of preventing energy supply disruptions and easing stable markets.