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How Small Island Developing States can end plastic pollution

By Sulan Chen, Inka Mattila and  Vera Hakim


New York-- Scattered over the vast area of our oceans, Small Island Developing States, or SIDS, are often pictured as blue, serene and beautiful paradises. However, we are at risk losing the beauty of these islands, due to the triple threats of climate change, loss of biodiversity, and pollution, especially marine plastic debris.

If business continues as usual, the annual flow of plastic into the ocean will nearly triple by 2040, to 29 million metric tonnes per year, equivalent to 50 kilograms of plastic for every meter of coastline worldwide. Soon, the ocean will turn into plastic soup, and islands will be covered in, and surrounded by, plastic waste. 

Despite their small land areas, some SIDS have identified themselves as large ocean states due to their large exclusive economic zones their economies are dependent on fisheries, aquaculture and tourism.

They contribute to less than two percent of mismanaged plastic waste, yet are disproportionately impacted by land- and sea-based plastic waste through leakage at every point along a plastic production and supply chain. Washing far ashore from where the waste is generated, plastic waste ends up on the coastlines of SIDS and in our food supply. 


Lack of land often means waste is often burned or dumped into the sea. Most islands do not have waste management facilities. Waste management has become a complicated issue. SIDS’ remote locations constitute a significant challenge in organizing inter-island logistics, and limited resources lead to bigger challenges regarding managing plastic litter. 


Many plastic products, especially single-use packaging, cannot be recycled due to the additives and variety of plastics, the prohibitively high cost of sorting and collection, and the low cost of new plastics. The first measure is to identify what is of essential use and eliminate problematic and unnecessary plastics.


A national multi-stakeholder process should be established to assess the status of plastics consumption, backed up with solid scientific data and analysis.

National policies should ban the import of certain problematic materials based on scientific assessment and public consultations. 

Field experience evidence has demonstrated the effectiveness of grassroots initiatives both for community-level awareness building and for circular economy initiatives. 


Given the challenges of recycling in SIDS, it is essential to use less plastics to reduce the burden of waste management. Ecological alternatives using traditional materials can be promoted.

Eco-design should be piloted and scaled up to focus on reducing environmental impact at every step of a product’s life cycle that designs out toxins or promotes reuse/refill and recyclability.

Governments can provide subsidies, tax credits, and other incentives to remove market barriers for the adoption of ecological alternatives and eco-design products, and to promote circular economy initiatives.


Most island states import plastics from overseas, but the post-consumer products and waste are not shipped out, which makes plastic-waste accumulation unavoidable.

As small island nations do not have the facilities and capacity for recycling, policies should be developed to ensure exporters of materials to SIDS to take post-consumer products back for recycling.

Governments should consider the development of extended producers’ responsibilities that collect taxes and fees from importers and/or exporters for waste management, and implement circular economy practices and policies. 


International cooperation is essential for SIDS to deal with plastic pollution. SIDS are at the receiving points of marine debris (of which 75 percent are plastics) as they are near ocean gyres.

Unless the world ends marine plastic pollution once and for all, SIDS alone will not be able to deal with it, as ocean currents will continue bringing it ashore. For example, in the Comoros, if waste continues unchecked, the island of Moheli risks losing its fragile ecosystem and its UNESCO Biosphere Reserve status.


In Seychelles, UNDP has supported a national campaign “The Last Straw” to stop the use and sale of single use plastic straws, which directly reduce the leakage of plastic waste. It has resulted in a national ban on plastic straws and balloons. 


In the Dominican Republic, UNDP has worked with the central and local government, private sector, academia and civil society organization and community organizations to tackle plastic pollution with a life cycle approach, including exploration of local, scalable solutions for plastics waste management with the support of UNDP´s Accelerator Lab.

UNDP has partnered with Ocean Cleanup on an automatic plastic collection system, which has reduced the plastic waste entering the ocean, increased public awareness of plastic pollution, and inspired national policy conversations. '

With the support from the Global Environmental Facility, the Dominican Republic will reduce single use plastics in food and beverages, and scale up circular solutions with policy change, demonstration of innovative models, public-private partnerships and awareness raising. 


In Comoros, UNDP and UNEP have formed the Comoros Integrated Waste Management Alliance to address waste management and work with municipalities and communities. This alliance builds upon the shared commitment by UNDP and the United Nations Environment Programme, made in October 2023 to focus on plastic pollution and integrated waste management.


As the SIDS leaders and international community prepare to gather in the upcoming week in Antigua and Barbuda to review SIDS progress towards Sustainable Development Goals it is critical to reaffirm our collective commitment to take drastic and urgent actions to turn off the tide of plastic pollution.

The ongoing plastics treaty negotiations should also consider SIDS special conditions and agree upon special measures addressing SIDS challenges, and aim for an ambitious and effective global legal instrument to end plastic pollution.


Together, we must stop the trajectory of our Earth turning into plastic ocean, plastic islands and plastic dumps. There is no time to waste, and no action is not an option. We must stop plastic pollution to secure a clean and sustainable planet for ourselves, our future generations, and all other lives that share this precious planet.

Sulan Chen, principal technical advisor and global lead on Plastics Offer, UNDP, Inka Mattila, resident representative ofUNDP Dominican Republic and Vera Hakim is deputy resident representative if UNDP Comoros


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