Small Islands, Big Problems

The ocean encompasses every aspect of life and society in the Caribbean. From ecotourism to feeding our children, the conservation of this natural resource is critical to ensuring a prosperous future. One of the challenges facing the marine environment in the Caribbean Sea is the increasing level of plastics, mainly the presence of microplastics, in its waters. My experiences as a member of a youth-led environmental organisation, Protect Our Future, have led me to realise that young people are the main agents of change.

Because plastic is such a new and widespread product, strategies for dealing with waste were not thought of until after waste began to affect the aesthetic value of our environment. What I mean by aesthetic value is that when plastics first gained popularity, the solid waste was small enough that it did not appear to be littering the streets or floating along rivers, so the problem was ignored and thus its magnitude quietly increased.

Protect Our Future at a beach clean-up in Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands.

Most of the debris our group encounters during the beach clean-up derives from islands surrounding our own, Grand Cayman. This shows that even if we choose to live disconnected from the rest of the world, the ocean will always remind us of our interconnectedness. The assumption that most humans consider themselves disconnected from nature is not too far from the truth. This has been demonstrated, time and again, where the comfort of technocentrism has been resorted to. By definition, a technocentrist is someone who believes that the earth's resources are here to be taken for human development and, ultimately, technology will "save the day".

Yet at least 14 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean every year. A conversation with people who witnessed the trajectory of plastics revealed that having to pay for water, a necessity of life, is absurd. By contrast, in today's society, buying water in a single-use plastic bottle is a normal and accepted habit.

The age of convenience created by the invention of plastic in the early 20th century has become a clean-up problem for young people. Our current collective mindset does not take into account the fact that plastic will not only outlive us, but will outlive our grandchildren as well. If we have any hope of preventing litter and pollution of our natural environment in the future, we need to address the root of the problem: the combination of excessive plastic consumption with unacceptable solid waste management strategies. 

The key to tackling this problem is twofold, one is prevention and the other is remediation. An important factor in preventing the use of plastics is transparency between producer and consumer. The vast majority of people are not educated about the history of plastic and therefore do not realise the impact of their daily choices on the future of this planet. Even if we were to stop the consumption of single-use plastic, it would still be necessary to replenish already polluted ecosystems: remediation.

As far as I have seen, there are two main benefits that drive the recovery of the marine environment. The first is the absence of human incursion into ecosystems, allowing the ocean to restore its natural balance. Secondly, most remediation efforts attract community support, which inadvertently raises awareness of the challenge. In recent years, beach clean-ups in the Cayman Islands have removed more than 32 tonnes of plastic from our beaches. Hundreds of people have donated their time and learned, first hand, the impact of that straw or bottle they use. If I could give one piece of advice to the European Commission it would be not to underestimate the power of EU environmental education. 

This year's One Ocean Summit was held in February to address current marine issues in the run-up to the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon in June 2022, which aims to assess the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 14 (SDG14) targets. The summit highlighted the links between our ocean, climate and the need to protect biodiversity, as Palau's president Surangel Whipps Jr. reminded us: "[the ocean] needs a global response, bold action, accessible funding, equitable partnership to enable communities to build Resilience". Palau is the perfect example of a nation taking responsibility for its exploitation of ocean resources and changing its lifestyle to be in tune with nature and its systems, gaining long-term economic stability and prosperity. In 2015, the Palau government announced a drastic decision to designate 80% of its waters as marine sanctuaries in response to the economic effects of overfishing. The result was that fish stocks in the no-take zone became so healthy that they spread to areas where fishing was allowed, boosting both tourism and fishing industries with the abundance of fish. The conclusion from this is that when we implement the right legislation and allow time for ecosystems to regenerate, everyone wins. 

Over-exploitation has stripped the ocean of its title as a sanctuary and replaced it with a dumping ground. The UN report published in 2020 revealed that only 3% of marine areas are free from human interference. This means that 93% of our planet's marine surface is affected by industrial fishing or fertiliser run-off that has already created 400 "dead zones", affecting an area the size of the UK. If we want to ensure a prosperous future for our children, we must cooperate. As European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said of this challenge: "Our mission to protect the ocean must be as great as our responsibility.

Re-created by Chiara Subiotto.

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