Between Clouds and Oceans Series

A Wave of Ocean Plastic: The Brazilian Tormenta

By Laisa Branco de Almeida

Upon returning to my hometown, the feeling of being immersed in a post-apocalyptic scenario stuns me and drives me to take actions that seek to solve the problems all around me. The amount of plastic residue laying on the sand and many bottle caps and straws around beach tables caught my attention right away. It’s impossible not to remember the fable of the bird extinguishing the forest wildfire one drop of water at a time. In the same way, volunteers from various organisations collect every piece of waste they can. Yet, it seems like it is never enough. As the question continues to pop into our heads, I ask myself, where are we heading in the next few years with all the plastic polluting our oceans? 

In recent years, idyllic Brazilian vistas have been suffering from marine litter. It is predominantly plastic waste of all varieties, colours, sizes, and shapes. It is comparable to a tsunami of plastic, which increasingly washes over the Brazilian ground. The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) recognizes marine plastic pollution as a rapidly increasing, serious issue of global concern that needs an urgent global response. 

In 2019, I volunteered for beach clean-up actions at the coast of Bahia. The record at the time in Salvador de Bahia for products found was of plastic bottle caps for soft drinks and alcoholic beverages. The waste-collection volunteers work incessantly throughout Brazil, but they see their efforts reversed by a recent wave of waste again contaminating previously cleaned-up places. 

But the waste on the beaches is not only of foreign origin. Brazil is among the largest producers and consumers of plastic worldwide, as the 4th biggest plastic waste-generating country. Globally, CIEL alerts that out of approximately 275 million metric tons of plastic waste produced annually, up to 12 million tons of it leak into oceans, wreaking havoc on livelihoods and ecosystems. According to the Instituto Mar Urbano, annually, 325,000 tons of plastic end up in the Atlantic Ocean encircling Brazil. Around 70% of all the plastic found on Brazilian beaches is single-use plastic. 

To offer readers a contextualization of the problem globally, Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world in landmass. The Brazilian coast is 7,491 km long, making it the 16th longest national coastline in the world. Besides that, twenty-six states within the federation have a coastline. This fragmentation over a large territory makes the problem even more complex to legislate, requiring surgical cooperation between federal, state, and municipal laws.

We expect that there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans in less than three decades. How long does humankind intend to justify the unjustifiable and not push for stricter agreements to solve this problem in the long run? 

Marine plastic pollution transforms an ancient fishing tradition into an activity that is highly harmful to the local community. The incomprehensible is how a country that receives a 500% increase in tourism during the summer in the coastal region does not adopt a clear policy to combat plastic. The local and indigenous population, which often depends directly on the natural resources taken from the oceans, suffers more severely from the consequences of ingesting microplastics. 

Some states in the federation passed laws banning bags, straws, and plastic cups until July 2019. Brazil has had a National Law on the National Solid Waste Policy in force for over ten years. Also in March 2019, the Ministry of the Environment launched the National Plan to Combat Garbage at Sea (PNCLM). Both laws ended up being ineffective at raising recycling rates and did not prevent this waste from reaching the beaches. It is necessary to highlight some alarming data at this point. According to the Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics (IBOPE) data from 2018, 75% of Brazilians do not separate recyclable materials. Of these, 39% do not separate organic waste from the rest. The research also stresses that 77% of Brazilians know that plastic is recyclable. Nevertheless, the great majority of the population still don’t engage actively in household recycling.

Some of us make efforts to avoid specific plastic items. But the problem cannot be solved by individual and localized actions only. How can we stop waves of waste from other States from moving across borders? Move to other countries, and who knows, pollute beaches and coasts? How can we prevent it from being dumped in the deep-sea? 

There is a prominent international movement underway for an international treaty on plastics. UNEA has, over the past few years, passed resolutions despite the importance of having a binding agreement upon States in combating pollution by plastics in the oceans. The dilemma between hard law and soft law stresses the crucial role of international law. I would like to think that a solution to the crisis comes from multiple institution’s intersecting efforts. 

Advocating for a legally binding agreement calls for an international responsibility upon states towards the obligations agreed. Yet let us all remind ourselves that coerciveness per se will not be the sole contributor to solving the problem. We as citizens are as much responsible for ocean plastic as the states are for committing themselves to international agreements. 

About the Author

Laisa is a Master’s Student in International Law at the Graduate Institute in Geneva and vice-president of the Water Initiative (IHEID). She is a member of the Center of Studies for the Law of the Sea at the University of Sao Paulo (USP) and a qualified lawyer at the Brazilian Bar Association. 

@laisa.branco (LinkedIn & Facebook) (E-mail)

The Water Initiative aims to raise awareness around water related issues and provides students and young professionals with information on research and career opportunities in the field of water governance, water diplomacy and natural resource management.


Photo and Art by Charlotte Qin of QinTheory Studio.

Between Clouds and Oceans is a collaborative series by the Water Initiative and the Geneva-based QinTheory Studio. Water is the origin of all lives but also indispensable to the identity and cosmology of our ancestors. Following where water flows between Clouds and Oceans, the collaboration aims to create an ethnographic collage about water tangential to the international discourse on water governance and natural resource management, and to unlock our long-sought answers to creating peace and living in harmony with one another.

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