ELIZABETH MENDENHALL Assistant Professor Marine Affairs Political Science

Photo by Beau Jones

“URI’s new plastics initiative is a good thing because, even though we researchers are doing very different things, it allows us to have collected conversations about strategies and impactful collaborative work,” she said. The professor believes one of those strategies is refining international law. Specifically, Mendenhall focuses her research on studying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The agreement signed by 168 countries serves as a sort of constitution for the ocean. It contains rules stating that countries must take all necessary measures to reduce, prevent, and control land-based pollution from entering shared spaces in the ocean. Mendenhall’s long-term goal is to survey the existing legal resources in the agreement to determine what could be modified to enforce these rules and change behavior. She also wants to know why the existing rules are not always enforced. “If you had to dream up a law, this is what you’d want. But the thing is, all these rules were written in the 1970s. My intuition is that maybe the way the rules were written may have been intended more for

coastally located pollutants,” she said. “Certainly, there are tons of negative impacts on the land and near the land, but those big patches out in the middle of the ocean, those are in the high seas. And the laws don’t delegate authority to anyone for those regions of the oceans.” The high seas, 200 nautical miles offshore, present a complicated jurisdictional system because they are not owned by any country. Owned coastal regions SHE HYPOTHESIZED THAT A LACK OF MARINE PLASTICS POLLUTION POLICY RESULTS FROM A LACK OF KNOWLEDGE ABOUT THE PROBLEM ITSELF AND POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS.

URI Initiative Plastics: Land to Sea SPRING | 2021 Page 43

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