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U.N. environment chief warns "we're facing an ocean Armageddon"

Plastic trash in the Arctic
Plastic trash from Americas and Europe fill the Arctic ecosystem 03:59

UNITED NATIONS -- In Nairobi, Kenya, a U.N. environmental summit opened Monday. The goal: to restore a healthy ocean. The U.N. Environment Assembly (UNEA) began with 7,000 delegates from around the world and 100 ministers, making it the highest level decision-making body on the environment.

It is important to note that resolutions passed during the U.N. Environment Assembly are non-binding to member states, but there is a push to move toward a legal treaty banning plastic waste from entering the sea, in effect, a "zero tolerance" policy.

U.N. Environment Executive Director and Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, Erik Solheim, told CBS News that he is hoping that the Nairobi summit will be a turning point, "We're facing an ocean Armageddon: Every year, we're dumping at least 8 million tons of plastics into our oceans."

Solheim said, "At the current rate, we'll end up with more plastic in the oceans than fish by the middle of the century, and ultimately that comes back to our own food chain."

"We need to understand that if we kill our oceans, we also kill ourselves."

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The Nairobi conference is focusing on pollution, divided into: air, chemical, freshwater, land and soil, marine and waste.

But, because the ocean pollution is affecting so many countries, and has some available solutions, it is getting the most attention.

U.N. Environment's Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities began in 1995 but this year, it began the #CleanSeas campaign,  targeting industry to minimize plastic packaging and redesign products; and calling on consumers to change their throwaway habits -- before irreversible damage is done to our seas.

Peter Thomson, the U.N. Secretary General's Special Envoy for the Ocean told CBS News, "There is no doubt that the UNEA meeting in Nairobi will be an important step in combatting humanity's pollution of the Ocean with plastic. There is no quick fix to this gigantic problem and many processes and methods will be required to correct the wrongs that we have brought upon the Ocean with our plastic plague."

The ocean's plague seems to be getting some traction. Dr. Mae Jemison, who flew aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor in 1992, and self-described as the first woman of color in space is an American from Houston, Texas, and a physician and scientist. Along with other astronauts, she is making the case.

"Until we see that we have a shared responsibility and a shared origin, and a shared reliance on the resources of this planet, we don't have a sustainable future," Dr. Jemison said.

The Nairobi meeting has started a hashtag "BeatPollution" which has garnered more than 2 million people signing onto a pledge, "I want to live in a pollution-free planet."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agrees, saying, "Following decades of uncontrolled dumping, some areas of the ocean became demonstrably contaminated with high concentrations of harmful pollutants including heavy metals, inorganic nutrients, and chlorinated petrochemicals."

And, although the U.S. is withdrawing from several U.N. pacts and organizations, including the Paris Climate Agreement, UNESCO, and the Global Compact on Migration, U.S. appears to be on board to clean up the oceans and eliminate pollution.

President Trump's Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs Judith Garber is attending the assembly for the United States; Monday, she met with youth groups on pollution and recycling.

Solheim says, "It's a simple case of changing our habits, and stopping plastics from entering the ocean in the first place. For that we need governments to take action, and ensure that polluters pay and recycling is rewarded."

U.N. General Assembly President Miroslav Lajcak tweeted from Nairobi "Pollution is global. It can start unilaterally; it only takes one person, in one small part of the world to pollute land, air or waters around them #BeatPollution."

The U.N. Environment envoy, Solheim, was, ultimately optimistic, telling CBS News, "Fortunately the solutions are straightforward: There are plenty of natural alternatives to plastics beads in toothpaste or face scrub ... We don't need food to be systematically wrapped in plastic, and we certainly don't need plastic straws or throwaway plastic coffee cups."

"This is an environmental disaster caused by laziness that is easily fixed by a healthy dose of innovation and political will."

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