Alicia Nicholls

Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Heads of Government this week adopted a Declaration aimed at addressing the high levels of plastics and microplastics in the Caribbean Sea and their adverse impact on Caribbean sustainable development.

The St. John’s Declaration was signed and launched by the Government of Antigua and Barbuda at the Play it Out Concert hosted by Antigua and sponsored by Norway. It is part of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) President Maria Espinosa’s global call to action for Governments against plastic pollution and single-use plastics launched in December 2018. The Declaration was subsequently adopted by CARICOM Heads of Government during their 40th session held in St. Lucia July 3-5, 2019.

Why is the St. John’s Declaration important?

The Caribbean Sea is of tremendous economic, social and ecological value to the countries washed by its shores. A World Bank Study estimates that “in 2017, the insular Caribbean’s gross revenues from marine and coastal tourism alone totaled an estimated US$57 billion”. This same study cites pollution as one of the biggest threats to the Caribbean marine environment.

Indeed, the World Bank study notes that “marine litter is accumulating in the Caribbean Sea, originating both in the region as well as distant countries overseas through the ocean currents” and that “studies have… found as many as 200,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer in the northeastern Caribbean”.

According to the World Bank Report, “up to 80 per cent of the litter found in our oceans is made of plastic”. It further states that “Caribbean data from beach and coastal clean-ups in 2017 indicate that plastic beverage bottles alone amount to 21 percent of the items recorded.”

These plastics are dangerous because they take many years to degrade, remaining blights on the marine and land-based environment and death traps for marine life. According to Ocean Crusaders, “100,000 marine creatures a year die from plastic entanglement” and approximately 1 million sea birds also die from plastic. This of course has implications for human health and food security.

Twelve CARICOM Member States have to varying extents passed legislation to implement full or partial bans on the use of single use plastics and styrofoam products. However, the region has fallen short of a region-wide plastics ban. CARICOM’s adoption of the St. Johns Declaration is a good step towards showing our leadership’s commitment towards addressing the serious threat marine litter poses to our sustainable development.

Key Elements of the Declaration

The St. Johns Declaration encourages CARICOM Member States that have not yet done so to introduce measures to reduce and/or eliminate the use of single use plastics. It also commits to addressing the damage to our ecosystems caused by plastics by 2030 and to work with the private sector to “find affordable, sustainable and environmentally friendly alternatives”.

The Declaration recognizes that effective implementation of these actions “requires enabling and coherent policy, legislative and regulatory frameworks, good governance and effective enforcement at the global, regional, national and local levels”. They also “encourage development partners and the private sector to contribute financial and technical assistance, capacity-building initiatives”.

Marine litter is not just a Caribbean issue, but a global one. Firstly, plastic pollution in the Caribbean Sea comes not just from Caribbean countries, but from other countries, particularly in the North. Secondly, other oceans globally also face a similar threat.

There has been some global action on the issue of marine litter. Goal 14 of the UN Agenda 2030 and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals is to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development’. More specifically, one of its targets is “to reduce significantly all forms of marine pollution by 2025”. There are also several United Nations resolutions, including resolution 4/7 on ‘Marine Litter and Microplastics’.

Recently, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) adopted the Bangkok Declaration on Combating Marine Debris in the ASEAN Region in June 2019. The St. Johns Declaration encourages other regional and sub regional groups of countries “to take similar measures to eliminate discharge of plastic litter and microplastics to wells, rivers, seas and oceans”.

Given the magnitude of the threat of marine litter, and in particular, plastics pollution, global action still falls far short of what it should be. As such, the St. Johns Declaration calls for the urgent need for a global agreement to address plastics and microplastic pollution.

Our CARICOM leaders’ adoption of the St. John’s Declaration is a good step, but this is just the beginning. It must be translated into concrete action. For instance, getting countries which have not yet done so to implement bans on single use plastics and styrofoam products. This requires not just strong enforcement of the bans, but widespread public service campaigns educating businesses and the general public on the impact plastics have on the marine environment, and consequent implications for human health and food security. As several countries around the world, including some Caribbean countries, have implemented bans, there is scope for learning from these countries’ experiences in order to formulate best practices.

The full text of the Declaration of St. John’s is attached the Communique of the Conference of Heads of Government 40th Session which may be read here.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is an international trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed herein are her personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of any institution or entity with which she may be affiliated from time to time.