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Britain must use its soft power to secure an ambitious Global Plastic Treaty


4 min read

With the fifth largest marine estate in the world, the United Kingdom must help rid the world's oceans of plastic.

Protecting our precious marine environment is crucial and an opportunity for the UK to lead on the global stage again. Fellow island nations plagued by plastic are looking to us to help, so we must use our soft power to deliver an ambitious UN Global Plastic Treaty to stem the tide of plastic pollution.   

We know the scale of the challenge. An enormous eight million metric tons of plastic go into our oceans each year, killing over a million marine organisms a year, and creating huge plastic patches such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. As water and marine life do not respect borders, this is a global problem we all have a share in stopping.

The race to stop plastic pollution could quickly become a geopolitical battleground as well as an environmental necessity

One British Overseas Territory in the South Pacific demonstrates the challenge. Despite being uninhabited and thousands of miles from the nearest population centre of any size, Henderson Island has seen almost 40m pieces of plastic rubbish wash up on its shores. With no people, it cannot be responsible for the problem, yet like many places, it has become an accidental dustbin for faraway countries. 

Innovative organisations have started to develop technological solutions to retrieve this so-called “legacy plastic”. But, for this technology to be deployed at scale, it requires the financial and political backing of governments worldwide. The global power supporting this technology will offer these small island nations a plastic-free future in the process. That's why the race to stop plastic pollution could quickly become a geopolitical battleground as well as an environmental necessity. 

China is attempting to court Pacific Island nations using its development aid to expand its influence and power. The UK is responding to protect its interests in the region with renewed efforts to deepen its relationships in the Indo-Pacific. One tangible way we could strengthen these links is to support the immediate and long-term efforts to clean up the oceans they rely on for their livelihoods. There are two ways we can do this.

Firstly, we should use our soft power to secure an ambitious Global Plastic Treaty. The United Nations will hold its second set of talks on this new agreement in May, seeking a global deal to tackle plastic pollution before it can get into the ocean and once it has. The world sorely needs this agreement as current commitments only amount to a mere 7 per cent reduction in the annual discharge of plastic into the ocean by 2040. 

The UK has the negotiation know-how to push this new treaty along, just as we did at COP26 in securing Glasgow Climate Pact and at the UN's biodiversity summit, COP15, in Montreal. If we add our voice and make securing limits on future virgin plastic production and reduce our use of unnecessary plastic a foreign policy priority, we can help ensure this agreement delivers the transformation we need.

Secondly, as we head into the second round of negotiations, we should lead by example. We have a proud domestic record of eliminating avoidable plastic, but there's far more to do. This Conservative government needs to deliver on its pledges, from introducing a deposit return scheme for drinks containers to a system of consistent material collections for local authorities. These will take our efforts to tackle plastic pollution to the next level.

As an island nation responsible for nearly 7m square kilometres of the world's oceans, we have an essential role in ending the scourge of plastic pollution. I am pleased to have secured a debate on this in Parliament. I hope ministers will ensure the UK enters the next Global Plastic Treaty talks with all of the ambition and determination we can muster to end the flow of plastic into our oceans once and for all. 


Selaine Saxby, Conservative MP for North Devon

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Read the most recent article written by Selaine Saxby MP - The Conservatives have led on climate action – we must not backtrack now