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A speech by HRH The Prince of Wales at an event titled "Plastic in the marine environment: scaling up efforts to minimise waste" in Washington, D.C.

Published on 18th March 2015


Your Excellencies, Under Secretary of State, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am so heartened by the fact that it has proved possible for my International Sustainability Unit and the Global Ocean Commission to convene this meeting, not to mention the fact that so many people of critical importance and relevance to the issue of plastic in the marine environment have felt able to attend.

Having taken a keen interest in the state of the world's natural environment for longer than I care to remember, one thing that has always struck me as being very odd has been the comparatively low level of attention that has been devoted to the condition of the oceans. This is something that I have sought to address in my own small way in recent years and my International Sustainability Unit has, I think, made at least some progress in encouraging the transition to more sustainable marine fisheries.

However, later than one might have hoped - as I recall an abortive attempt some years ago to garner enough support to tackle this issue - but encouraging all the same, it does seem that the state of our oceans has begun to receive the attention it deserves, for which many of the organizations here today must take credit. In particular, the Global Ocean Commission has done much to raise awareness of both the issues and potential solutions and, of course, here in Washington, D.C. last June, the State Department held the seminal 'Our Oceans' Summit. And in this regard, I can only offer my warmest congratulations to Secretary of State, John Kerry, for all he has personally done to put the plight of our oceans right at the heart of the global environmental agenda, in addition to his broader leadership on climate change.

As all of you will know far better than me, the world's oceans face many threats, including overfishing, species extinction, habitat destruction and the impacts of climate change through warming and acidification. These threats do not occur in isolation, but are intimately linked to the fate of our own terrestrial environment. The natural regulation of our atmosphere, the food security of our coastal communities and the livelihoods of millions depend on the ecosystem services that the marine environment provides; an environment that is now under real threat.

One issue that we absolutely cannot ignore is that of the increasing quantity of plastic waste in the marine environment. I was horrified to learn that, according to recent research, we collectively allow as much as 8 million tonnes of plastic to enter the oceans every year. Today, almost half of all marine mammals now have plastic in their gut and I know I am not the only person haunted by the tragic images of seabirds, particularly albatrosses, that have been found dead, washed up on beaches after mistaking a piece of plastic for a meal. The fact that a recent study estimates that by 2025 there will be one ton of plastic for every three tonnes of fish in the sea is not what I call encouraging!

It is not just marine life that stands to lose from this problem. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that plastic waste in the marine environment is costing the global economy around thirteen billion dollars every year. We must also be conscious of the impacts that this cumulative build-up of plastic waste in the food chain might be having on our own health. Although the evidence surrounding the links between plastic waste and human health are not yet clear, I would tentatively suggest that they are unlikely to be beneficial.

Given all this, it seems to me as I am sure it does to all of you that something must be done urgently to stem the tide of plastic entering the oceans.

There do appear to be solutions to this challenge - indeed, it has been suggested that through improved waste management, alone, the world could achieve a seventy-seven per cent reduction in plastic waste entering the oceans, something which is surely within our immediate grasp. However, a truly integrated, systemic solution to this challenge will need to go beyond simply containing the flow of waste and will require a critical examination of how waste is created within our supply chains and economies in the first place. It seems to me that finding long-term solutions to the particular challenge of plastics will require three things. First of all, improving waste management, so that all plastic waste is collected and then either recycled or used for energy production, is a key factor in decreasing the problem of litter. Secondly, governments around the world need to integrate the issue of marine littering into their national waste management strategies. Countries with advanced waste management systems and landfill restrictions have demonstrated that even though this path can be more complex and time-consuming, there is no alternative to achieving a long-lasting behavioural change. Thirdly, both the consumer and industry need to consider the value of plastics and thus need to pay the real cost (including externalities). Stimulating a second life for plastics in therefore essential; they are too valuable to be thrown away!

Faced with such a damaging and accumulating side-effect from the throw-away society, it is, I believe, utterly crucial that we do much more to speed up the transition to a more 'circular' economy - that is to say, one in which materials are recovered, recycled and reused instead of created, used and then thrown away. On our crowded planet this has to be a critical part of establishing a more harmonious relationship between mankind and the natural environment which sustains us all. Enabling that transition requires sustained commitment on all sides including, as I have just suggested, efforts to change consumer behaviour, promote long-term business thinking, improve the quality and quantity of recycling facilities and reform the policies of governments.

I can only conclude, Ladies and Gentlemen, by expressing my warmest gratitude to the Global Ocean Commission, which has worked tirelessly with my International Sustainability Unit to make this meeting possible, and to the Commissioners such as David Miliband for all their efforts to draw attention to such a critical issue.

Today's meeting is an important milestone in an important year. I hope and pray that you will take away from here the inspiration and conviction needed to ensure that concrete and timely action is taken to address this problem. For, unlike so many challenges that now confront us, there is a solution readily to hand and, speaking as a grandfather with a new grandchild due to appear in this world in a month's time, I think we probably owe it to everyone else's grandchildren to grasp that solution.