Forum on Plastic-Free Rivers
Apr 03, 2022

Under the theme of “Reducing river plastic litter through science, policy and citizen action”, the international forum took place virtually on 8-10 March 2022. With 586 registered participants, 45 speakers along with 6 thematic sessions, the three-day forum highlighted the achievements of CounterMEASURE in driving scientific knowledge, increasing outreach and awareness, and advancing policy and behavioral changes in Mekong countries and India to tackle plastic waste. Here are the highlights, new insights and important messages that came through the Forum.

Opening Session

In the opening session, internationally known Filipino actress and National Goodwill Ambassador for UNEP, Antoinette Taus said, “Let us all exchange various opinions over the next three days to protect the world’s environment and living creatures from plastic pollution”. And then a film on the CounterMEASURE II project was shown to the viewers. It emphasizes how the oceans are being affected by plastic pollution, as well as CounterMEASURE’s work in Asia to solve the problem.

At the session, key challenges together with actions and commitments were underscored by regional, national, and institutional partners for plastic-free rivers.

“Rivers are a major interface between land and sea and most of the plastic found in the marine environment is brought by rivers. Hence, for a pollution-free planet, plastic-free rivers are key,” Dechen Tsering, Regional Director and Representative for Asia and the Pacific, UN Environment Programme, said in her remark.

“Without any counter measures, the amount of the plastic waste in the oceans will outweigh fishes by 2050. From the seriousness of the issue and sense of urgency, Japan has been funding the CounterMEASURE project with UNEP. Plastic products play a critical role in our daily. The only way to save the marine ecosystem from plastic pollution while still consuming plastic products is by eliminating the leakage of plastic waste into the ocean,” H.E. Nashida Kazuya, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Japan to the Kingdom of Thailand said in his speech.

Session 1: Evidence-based polices on plastics

This session highlighted the power of science-policy link to effectively address plastic pollution from source to sea.

There was a discussion on how we can take steps to connect the rich scientific information that has become available in Asia to develop regulatory frameworks to stop plastic pollution, especially upstream of the Plastic Value Chain and involve a wide range of stakeholders from scientists, citizens, public, private sector, media.

Steve Fletcher, Professor of Ocean Policy and Economy, and Director of the Sustainability and the Environment Research Theme at the University of Posthumous, explained the status of policies in Asian countries to meet the G20 Implementation Framework on Marine Plastic Litter. He added that the development process of the new global treaty on plastic pollution, which will be a game-changer, can benefit from the experience of scientific knowledge that is and can do more to inform policy planning & action plans at regional, national and city levels to strengthen plastic management governance.

2. Frontier technologies and citizen science for plastic pollution management

Recognizing the scale of the plastic pollution crisis, countries and communities are searching for innovative solutions to tackle the problem. The speakers of the session pointed out that recent studies have demonstrated the potential of cutting-edge technologies such as the use of mobile phones, CCTV camera and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to identify, monitor and manage plastic pollution.

On the other hand, as a challenge, the importance of providing accurate and verified data to policy makers and citizen scientists was also noted.

Kavinda Gunasekara, Associate Director of the Geographic Information Centre (GIC) at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), explained about the CCTV camera installed at the port of Chiang Rai, along the Mekong River in northern Thailand, as part of the CounterMEASURE project.

Session 3: Mapping Plastic Pollution Along Rivers

The third session, on ‘Mapping plastic pollution in rivers’, featured a lively discussion with speakers from a wide range of expertise including university researchers, programme manager from Google, an engineer from a start-up company and a UN expert.

Yu Fukunaga, researcher from Pirika, a Japanese start-up company established to solve environmental problems through the power of science and technology, a partner of the CounterMEASURE project, reported on the survey of microplastic collection and analysis.

Some of the key recommendations emerging from the discussion emphasized the importance of subscribing to an “open data policy” considering data sharing as key to accelerate advanced technologies.

Session 4: Plastics in the environment: A threat for migratory species

Guest speakers include experts and journalists with expertise in the environment and wildlife. At the beginning of the session, a documentary which depicts the impact of plastic pollution on the Ganges River Dolphin and other faunal species was shown to the audience.

There have been increasing concerns over the negative impacts of plastic pollution in freshwater and terrestrial environments which are still not fully known.

In inspiring actions to address this global issue, there is an urgent need to understand its likely impact on wildlife, their habitats and on human health. Risk assessments conducted under the CounterMEASUREII project have shown that in the freshwater environment, several of the endangered CMS species. There is a need to present the current state of knowledge, trends, risks, challenges as well as raise awareness and action to address the impacts of plastic pollution on migratory species in the Asia Pacific.

Furthermore, the session also shed light on how media attention needs to shift from focusing on quick fixes, which could slow down behavior change. Stories may need to be reframed to highlight community-centered narratives that focus specially on biodiversity dependent communities. The session concludes that there is sufficient understanding of the issue to create an enabling environment for policy decisions.

Session 5: Plastic pollution data management for insightful and informed decision making

This session underscored the relevance of building capacities and robust data collection and management for the effective and efficient management of riverine plastic pollution.

Michikazu Kojima, an economist specializing in environmental policies, especially, waste management and recycling in Asian countries discussed on the issue of lacking the waste management data in some of Asian countries.

One of the key messages in the session was to promote the plastic pollution monitoring Protocol for Mekong River, developed by the Mekong River Commission (MRC).

Session 6: #Face the Plastic Truth: Voices for actions and solutions

This session’s main theme is how to communicate the risks of marine plastic litter. Speakers included media and communication experts.

Simon Berry with 1000 Heads, who involved in the campaign “#Face the Plastic Truth” pointed out that to develop engaging content, the use of data & science is very important. One Journalists commented on the importance of timing, such as when new regulations come into force, to educate the public about the issue of marine plastic litter.

A key recommendation arising from the session discussion underscore the need to ensure a delicate balance between scientific facts and maintaining interest when communicating the impacts of plastic pollution.

Conclusion Session

The Forum on Plastic-Free Rivers in Asia concluded on 10 March 2022 with representatives from the UN Environment Programme and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan delivering the outcomes of the forum and closing remarks.

Kakuko Yoshida, Global Coordinator, Chemicals and Pollution Action Subprogramme of UNEP has pointed out the four urgencies.

  1. Plastic pollution is an urgent global issue
  2. We need to focus on action in our rivers
  3. Urgency of intergovernmental process
  4. Importance of acting together

In Closing, “Japanese Government will continue to make pro-active measures to fight plastic pollution,” Tomoe Kotani, Deputy Director, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affair said forcefully.