Associate Professor Joanna Vince hasn’t always been a champion against marine plastics pollution.
Her research career began looking at issues of Australia’s oceans policy and governance more broadly.
A chance interdisciplinary project led to a collaboration with marine plastics researcher Dr. Britta Denise Hardesty from the CSIRO, which resulted in one of the most downloaded papers in the journal Restoration Ecology’s history.
Today, Joanna is a leading researcher in marine plastic pollution, blending policy and science to develop best-practice approaches to develop solutions to this complex challenge.
Dr. Vince has brought the Scientists’ Declaration on the Need for Governance of Plastics Throughout their Lifecycles to the University of Tasmania.
In signing the Declaration, the University has agreed to the call to action from scientists to global policy leaders for a legally binding global treaty on marine plastics pollution.
When I saw it, I thought, as a university we need to be part of this, and we need to sign it, because of all the sustainability work we’ve been doing, it’s showing that we are serious about [plastics pollution], as a sustainable university.
The Scientists’ Declaration calls for an approach to plastics management that begins at the start of the lifecycle – not just at the end, when the item is discarded.
While waste management is one piece of the puzzle, Dr. Vince says that just looking at “end-of-pipe solutions” isn’t going to fix the problem.
The Declaration suggests a number of solutions to be considered by the international community, such as a cap on the production of virgin plastics, developing repair and reuse infrastructure, and regulating the use of additives to prevent chemical leeching, in addition to waste management.
The need for a global approach to manage plastics pollution is becoming urgent, says Dr. Vince.
"[…]We’re finding [plastics] everywhere, we’re finding it in the Arctic in the snow, in the Antarctic, we’re finding microplastics are now so much part of the sea bed that you can’t take them out, and we’re finding more and more evidence of it impacting our health. Microplastics have been found in human placenta, human lung tissue in table salt, the list goes on and on and on… so we are now impacted through physiological responses in addition to our environment by plastic."
In March, United Nations member states agreed to negotiate a legally binding globally treaty to end plastics pollution.
For Dr. Vince, it’s crucial that the treaty is based on science, and the Scientists’ Declaration will be a powerful force to ensure that the global resolution has the support of the world’s scientists.
From a policy perspective, it’s also crucial that the treaty is legally binding.
“We need clear directions about which way to go. It needs to be fair to developing nations because they don’t have the resources or the power to make some of the changes needed to lessen plastic pollution, so we as a world need to be working together to ensure that those countries that need a helping hand do get it through this process. And to make sure we don’t let the biggest polluters get away with it,” said Dr. Vince.
Right now, plastics are mostly managed at the local level in a waste management context, in Australia through local councils and on similarly small scales globally.
Local changes do make an impact – Dr. Vince’s research has documented the effectiveness of local coastal stewardship and waste management policies for reducing coastal litter, for example.
The source and impacts of plastics pollution are “transboundary and transgenerational” and complex to address.
“I would personally like to see holistic governance approaches, where governments work with NGOS, civil society, community groups, as well as industry to come up with solutions rather than everyone just being told what to do. I don’t think that’s ever going to work, it does have to be a holistic approach,” say Dr. Vince.
Plastics pollution has been a major focus of COP27, which is currently underway in Egypt, and negotiations on a global plastics treaty will begin in Uruguay in November, with the goal to have a treaty in place by the end of 2024.
“Watch this space!” says Dr. Vince.
If you are a student or staff member interested in joining the University’s plastics minimisation working group, contact the Sustainability Team.