Lax global laws won’t stop ocean pollution

Master’s graduate Vincent Piki wants a relook at laws governing microplastic pollution in ocean environments.

Master’s graduate Vincent Piki wants a relook at laws governing microplastic pollution in ocean environments.

Published May 19, 2024


Durban — A University of KwaZulu-Natal graduate is concerned that local and international laws are lax and inadequate against the proliferation of microplastic pollution in the world’s oceans.

With scientific evidence showing that minuscule pieces of plastic, invisible to the naked eye, affected the growth and reproductive health of marine organisms, Vincent Piki, who graduated with a Master’s degree in Maritime Law from UKZN this month, also expressed concern about its impact on humans.

Piki focused his Master’s research project on the gaps in laws worldwide that enabled the increase in microplastic pollution, and called on lawmakers to stem the tide of its silent devastation with a rethink of existing legislation.

“Through research I have identified the gaps in local and international laws. It has become a severe problem that requires urgent attention and mitigation,” Piki found.

He said while South Africa had laws, there were loopholes. Piki explained that microplastic particles originated from clothing, single-use plastic products, straws, bags and tyres and were not biodegradable.

Binned plastics usually end up in landfill sites and the residual microplastics get carried by water streams, including sewage flows, into rivers and the ocean.

He said he had been startled by the presence of toxic chemicals in microplastics, which harmed marine life.

Piki added microplastics were an added strain on already challenged marine environments enduring phenomena like climate change and the effects of oil and gas leaks.

He suggested urgent action so that future generations would be able “to know marine life as we did”.

Master’s graduate Vincent Piki wants a relook at laws governing microplastic pollution in ocean environments.

He said research was still being carried out to determine whether the toxic chemicals were also harmful to humans.

“There are scientific findings showing microplastics can be suspended in the air and ingested by humans, and surfacing in tap water.”

He is confident the situation can be turned around and heartened by recent international talks on new legal instruments to address the problem.

South Africa participated in these discussions and Piki said it remained to be seen whether they and other nations would adopt the proposals into law.

“SA is addressing the microplastic pollution situation presently, but we can do more scientifically and also review our laws,” he said.

His interest in maritime law was started while he was studying his Bachelor of Laws degree (LLB) at Unisa. He was not familiar with maritime law, and believed it was largely because he had grown up in the land-locked North West.

“While doing my LLB, I familiarised myself with the different legal career opportunities. I researched maritime laws and interacted with professionals in the industry and felt motivated to pursue it as my postgraduate study subject.”

Piki, who hails from the small township of Pudimoe, near Taung, was raised by his mom who provided for him and his younger sister.

The results he achieved in his matric exams prompted his mother and grandmother to support his academic potential, in spite of their financial constraints.

“Fortunately, I received a Unisa bursary.”

When Piki considered his maritime law mission, he learnt that the subject was only offered at UKZN and the University of Cape Town.

Relocating to either city presented a major challenge.

“I came across a bursary opportunity covering maritime law, advertised by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE). My application was successful and it marked the beginning of my journey.”

With an additional bursary from the Department of Transport to cover his living-away-from-home expenses, Piki was able to achieve his academic goals.

“I was able to complete the two-year course in 18 months. I am very excited by my achievement, considering the challenges.”

He was also grateful to his supervisor, Dusty Donnelly, for her “encouragement and belief in me”. Piki has since landed a two-year internship with the DFFE in Cape Town and hopes to achieve his PhD in the future.

Independent on Saturday