Some of the Earth’s most beautiful tropical paradises are being disfigured by the by-products of our modern society: marine debris. This human-created waste that is being disposed into the sea range from plastic bottles and carrier bags to discarded fishing gears.
But just a tiny fraction of the debris polluting islands is originating from the islands themselves – most of which are generated on land, entering the sea through the sewers and drains.
Photo: Fabiano Barretto
Marine debris polluting the beautiful shores of Small Islands Developing States can sometimes come from passenger liners, freighters and fishing vessels, whose crews often use the oceans as a giant waste disposal unit.
Tourists produce large amounts of wastes, especially during the peak tourism period, compounding the difficulty of the island’s authorities to manage waste with their limited capacities.
For most part, Small Island Developing States do not have the resources to deal with the huge problem of marine debris that is being washed up on their doorstep as the tides and currents wash the accumulated marine garbage onto their beaches.
A litter-strewn beach is an eye-sore and with tourism playing a major role in the economies of many island states, marine debris can have substantial adverse financial implications threatening local businesses and employment prospects.
Photo: Fabiano Barretto
Ecotourism guarantees sustainable livelihood and provides incentives to protect wildlife while contributing to sustainable development. Because of its impacts on ecosystems, marine debris is jeopardizing ecotourism activities.
Did you know?
Sea birds inadvertently feed their young with plastic which then blocks the chicks’ intestines preventing them from eating properly and leading to a slow and painful death. The staple prey of some marine turtles is jellyfish but the turtles often mistake plastic bags for their favorite food with same dire results. For larger species such as whales, dolphins and seals, discarded fishing gear – ghost nets – are a huge problem as the animals become entangled in them. This can impede the animals’ movement and ability to hunt and also cause serious injury or even death through drowning.
Small Island Developing States are often subjected to extreme weather conditions such as tropical storms and hurricanes. After a storm, there’s usually a sudden and often dramatic appearance of huge amounts of plastic debris, dredged up from the deep and thrown onto the shore.
Because of climate change, hurricanes will occur more frequently, making island nations even more vulnerable to the consequences of storm aftermaths (i.e. waste management and disposal challenges).
Unique social, economic and environmental characteristics of Small Island Developing States, such as high population density, limited availability of land space and the lack of human and financial resources, reduce the choice of appropriate options for sound management of waste.
Ecosystem-based approaches such as ecotourism, waste separation and recycling are still in their early stages in many islands, though some attempts have been made to reduce the amounts of wastes generated.
Small Island Developing States lack resources, and waste management programmes have not often been implemented due to the lack of capabilities for technical analysis/assessment, planning, financing and public support.
Wastes are often disposed in improvised landfills, incineration, open burning or indiscriminate dumping on open land or in rivers and coastal waters, which aggravate the problem of marine litter.
There are very few sanitary landfills in Small Island Developing States. Poorly managed landfill sites — particularly open dumping sites, which are still common — seriously threaten environmental safety and increase health hazards.
Solid materials such as plastic, surface run-off and leachate from wastes can have devastating effects on freshwater and marine ecosystems.
Most of the pollution affecting oceans and islands is coming from land-based source: it is important to promote resource efficiency and encourage the sustainable use of nutrients, improved wastewater management, and prevent the influx of waste into the marine environment.
Here is the bright side: cost efficient and innovative solutions exist, plastics can be reused, recycled and redesigned.
Plus, an integrated, multi-sectorial ecosystem based approach can lead to healthier marine ecosystems and more economically productive oceans, supporting the transition to an inclusive green economy. The cost of inaction is higher than the cost of action.
Healthy oceans and coasts are vital in supporting livelihood and food security — especially in Small Island Developing States.
UNEP, through the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities (GPA), helps Small Islands Developing States (SIDS) to address waste management issues. It is the only global intergovernmental intiative addressing the connectivity between terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems.