Our Ocean 2015 Conference in Chile: EPA Launches International Marine Litter Initiative

By Jane Nishida

The world’s oceans are facing many serious environmental challenges that threaten the health of all marine life, our food security, and the air that we breathe. Land-based sources of pollution, such as marine litter, wastewater, and nutrient runoff, contribute to the deterioration of our coastal waters, habitats, and oceans. Ocean acidification, as a result of increased greenhouse gas emissions, also threatens food chains and causes coral bleaching, which destroys valuable habitats for marine life. It is imperative that we work to find solutions to these problems and encourage others to take action that helps restore the health of our oceans.

Jane Nishida with Easter Island tribal leaders in traditional dress.

Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator Jane Nishida with tribal leaders from Easter Island at the Our Ocean II Conference last week.

I joined Secretary Kerry and other distinguished experts at the Our Ocean 2015 Conference in Valparaiso, Chile the week of October 5. This conference brought together different government, policy, science, and advocacy leaders to raise awareness of the many problems affecting the global marine environment, including marine pollution, ocean acidification, sustainable fisheries, marine protected areas, and issues affecting local communities. Governments, international organizations, and NGOs committed to take actions that will address specific marine problems. Marine litter, in particular plastics, is a growing global problem with 8 tons of plastic entering the ocean annually – that is 1 ton of plastic for every 3 tons of fish.

I was proud to be able to announce a new joint partnership between EPA, the United Nations Environment Program’s Caribbean Environment Program , and the Peace Corps  to expand our Trash Free Waters strategy to the wider Caribbean region to help reduce land-based sources of marine debris. Trash Free Waters is a collaborative, stakeholder-based approach to mitigate marine litter by using regional and local strategies that reduces and prevents the amount of trash entering the waterways, and ultimately our oceans.

With EPA as the national technical focal point to the Land Based Sources Protocol to the Cartagena Convention in the wider Caribbean, this partnership will help national governments take action to prevent trash from reaching their waters. Peace Corps Volunteers will complement this strategy by providing support from on-the-ground projects in local communities that will help reduce litter and plastic trash from entering waterways and the ocean.

Jamaica and Panama will be the first countries to pilot a Trash Free Waters program to address marine litter in the wider Caribbean.  I met with the Foreign Ministers of Jamaica and Panama who were enthusiastic and noted the importance of this program in raising public awareness to the problem of marine debris. We are also working with the Peace Corps in both countries to help incorporate the Trash Free Waters approach into their programs so that the volunteers will be able to develop marine litter reduction and prevention projects in local communities.  We hope to be able to share success stories of our initial pilot work in Jamaica and Panama at the next Our Ocean Conference in Washington, DC in 2016. Our Trash Free Waters is playing an important role in getting trash out of our waterways and our oceans in the U.S. and globally.

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Working Together to Tackle Environmental Challenges

By Walker Smith

The United Nations Environment Program Compound in Nairobi, Kenya, where the first meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly of the UNEP, or UNEA, was held.

As I sat in traffic on my way back to the Nairobi airport, I watched the children weaving between the old taxis and buses that clog Nairobi’s streets, breathing in the black plumes pouring out of the tailpipes. The sight was a powerful reminder of why I’d traveled to Nairobi in the first place – for the first meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly of the United Nations Environment Program, or UNEA.

Over 160 nations came together at the first UNEA to address the critical environmental challenges facing the world today, like air quality, marine debris, illegal trade in wildlife, and hazardous waste. UNEA provided its participants with an opportunity to discuss, learn, negotiate, and, most importantly, identify concrete ways to improve environmental quality around the globe.

One of the goals of the U.S. delegation attending UNEA was to ensure that this nearly universal group of nations strengthened the United Nations Environment Program’s (UNEP) efforts to improve air quality around the world. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 7 million people died as a result of air pollution in 2012 alone, making air pollution the world’s largest single environmental health risk. Poor air quality has a staggeringly high human cost, but it’s an issue we can, and must, do something about.

We’ve already made progress domestically and abroad. In the United States from 1970 to 2012, Clean Air Act programs have lowered levels of six common air pollutants by 72 percent! Internationally, the UNEP-led Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles (PCFV) has worked tirelessly to remove lead from fuels since its founding in 2002. Through successful efforts to eliminate leaded gas in all but 6 countries, we avoid 1.2 million premature deaths per year – 125,000 of which are children.

Looking out the car window, I thought about the progress we had made through PCFV and efforts like it, but also of the steps still to be taken. Without these efforts, the children along the road beside me would be breathing in lead, a powerful neurotoxin with irreversible health impacts; however, many of them are still exposed on a daily basis to sulfur dioxide and black carbon from vehicles and from dirty stoves in their homes. And, in the United States, we still feel the effects of air pollution, generated from both domestic sources and across the ocean.

The world faces serious environmental threats, many of which cannot be solved by one country alone. Working through UNEA and with partners like UNEP, we’ill continue to move forward, finding new solutions and forming partnerships to help us tackle these challenges. I hope one day children in Nairobi, and around the world, will live and play in a cleaner, healthier environment.

About the author: Walker Smith has served as the Director of the Office of Global Affairs & Policy in the Office of International & Tribal Affairs since 2009. She previously served as Director of the Office of Civil Enforcement at EPA and as the Principal Deputy Chief of the Environmental Enforcement Section in the Department of Justice.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.