28 January 2019

Blog by Otto Spijkers, lecturer of Public International Law at Utrecht University

The Plastic Whale and our agreement to conserve the oceans

Skyscraper walvis, foto: Robert Oosterbroek
Photo: Robert Oosterbroek

Utrecht University lecturer Otto Spijkers wrote a blog post about the Skyscraper Whale in the Catharijnesingel in Utrecht and the link with United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14

One of the most romantic songs by singer-songwriter Tom Waits is entitled “Fish & Bird”. It tells the story of an impossible love between a big whale and a little bird (see here for the lyrics). The fish and bird discuss their future. “You cannot live with me in the ocean”, the whale sighs. Then the little bird replies: “And you cannot live with me in the air. And so, we bewail our fate, and the ocean fills with our tears.” But then the clever little bird comes up with a solution: “The sea surface is like a mirror that you can also see through. When I look down and into this mirror from the skies, I see a bird – that is my reflection – and I see a whale - that's you. Then we are together!”

Skyscraper walvis, foto: Robert Oosterbroek
Photo: Robert Oosterbroek

But when more and more plastic is floating in our oceans, we cannot see through or look into the sea surface anymore. To draw attention to the problem of plastic soup in the oceans, at the end of January 2019, at the initiative of my colleague Professor Marleen van Rijswick, a huge whale surfaced in the canals of Utrecht. Made entirely of plastic. The pictures that accompany the text of this blogpost show different stages of its creation, a process that I witnessed first-hand on a gray Tuesday in January. The plastic of which the whale is made is plastic found on the beaches of Hawaii, New York and Belgium.

Plastic in the Sea
Plastic Walvis duikt op in Utrecht, foto: Robert Oosterbroek
Photo: Robert Oosterbroek

The plastic whale draws attention to the problem of the plastic soup. That has everything to do with the Sustainable Development Goals. SDG 14 is about the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans. All States in the world have committed themselves, among other things, to try to drastically reduce litter in the sea. Marine litter consists of trash left - intentionally or accidentally - in the sea by people, and much of it is plastic. Plastic floats, and gathers in the center of gyres - large, ring-shaped currents in the oceans - and on the coasts. Plastic at sea poses a serious threat to fish, seabirds (seagulls), and marine mammals (whales, dolphins). Plastic also poses a threat to humans, for example because of the nuisance it causes to fishing boats. Major culprits are plastic bags, balloons, buoys and plastic bottles.

What does the Netherlands do?
Skyscraper walvis
Photo: Tonie Broekhuijsen

The Netherlands is aware of the problem and is looking for solutions. It emphasizes the importance of international cooperation. For example, the Regional Action Plan for Marine Litter was drawn up in the framework of the 'Convention for the protection of the marine environment in the North-East Atlantic' (OSPAR Convention). From the Netherlands, private initiatives are also taken, such as the Ocean Clean Up project by Boyan Slat. Another example - this time not from the Netherlands - is an initiative by Adidas, to produce gym shoes made of plastic from the sea

What now?
Skyscraper walvis, foto: Robert Oosterbroek
Photo: Robert Oosterbroek

An intergovernmental conference was held at United Nations Headquarters in New York at the beginning of June 2017 to support the implementation of SDG 14. There, the States called on stakeholders to act more quickly to prevent and significantly reduce all types of marine pollution, including plastics and microplastics. They also called for long-term and robust strategies to be developed and to be put in practice to reduce the use of plastics and microplastics, especially plastic bags and bottles for single use. States called for more intensive cooperation with each other, and with stakeholders, to tackle the production, marketing and use of plastics. Several good examples were mentioned during the conference. There are countries that have already completely banned plastic bags, plastic bottles for single use, and microplastics in cosmetics. Unfortunately, that is (still) ad hoc; there is no international regulation that prescribes something like that universally.