Plastic pollution: Global treaty drafted to end plastic pollution

A top UN official says a draft treaty to address plastic pollution will be the “biggest multilateral environmental deal” since the 2015 Paris climate agreement


1 March 2022

Plastic garbage collected research plot to assess plastic pollution Eastern Island Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge

Plastic garbage collected on Eastern Island in Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge

All Canada Photos / Alamy

Nearly 200 governments have provisionally agreed to a legally binding global treaty to end the plastic pollution crisis by tackling the material’s entire supply chain, in what Inger Anderson, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, says will be the “biggest multilateral environmental deal” since the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

At a meeting of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) in Nairobi, Kenya, this week, countries thrashed out a draft deal of the first treaty to directly tackle the 9 billion tonnes of plastic produced since the plastic age ramped up in the 1950s. The final agreement is expected to be finalised tomorrow, firing the starting gun on establishing a treaty by 2024 or 2025.

Advocates of a more ambitious treaty appear to have won out, judging by the draft. Two competing ideas had been put forward. One, led by Peru and Rwanda, encompassed all stages of plastic’s life cycle, from production to consumption and disposal. The second was a far more limited deal focused on plastics in the oceans, spearheaded by Japan.

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The draft deal that has emerged supports the Peru-Rwanda approach. Crucially, elements of the treaty will be legally binding. It also acknowledges that lower-income countries will find it harder to grapple with plastic and pollution than high-income ones and so there is a need for some sort of financing model to help curb plastic use and waste.

“We now have one text, it speaks to full life cycle, it speaks to legally binding, it speaks to a financing mechanism, it speaks to understanding some countries can do it more easily than others,” says Anderson. “It has been a long, hard road, but I’m very happy with the text we see now.” However, she stresses it remains a draft.

Anderson compared the accord to past environmental treaties such as the Montreal protocol on ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbon (CFCs) and the Minamata convention on mercury pollution, both of which led to massive reductions in emissions of these harmful chemicals. These are proof that global deals can make governments and industry work differently, she says. “We’ve done this before.”

The world produced 381 million tonnes of plastic in 2015, and hundreds of thousands of tonnes are estimated to end up in the oceans every year, most of it from lower and middle-income countries with less capacity to burn or recycle it. Ubiquitous plastic pollution has been linked to negative impacts on marine life, and there are fears it may affect our health too, although more work is needed to establish that.

Failure to tackle the problem isn’t an option, says Anderson. “The youth of today, voters, ordinary people, are just disgusted when they go to the coast and see this stuff,” she says.

Steve Fletcher at the University of Portsmouth, UK, says: “The best way to tackle plastic pollution is to prevent it in the first place. By covering the whole supply chain, a global agreement to tackle plastic pollution can support upstream solutions such as reducing or replacing plastic in products.” He adds: “There is a broad consensus that global coordination is best achieved through a legally binding agreement.”

Exactly what measures should be enacted under a global plastic treaty, and what teeth the deal might have, will now need to be worked out before it takes effect. Anderson hopes to achieve that within three years. She says the fact that the draft calls for legally binding elements is important. One example of how that might be implemented is limiting how much virgin polymer is put into economies, she says. Some elements of the treaty won’t be legally binding, however, such as technical assistance, she adds.

If today’s draft stays roughly the same when it is agreed tomorrow as planned, says Anderson, “I’ll feel like the world has accomplished something worthwhile”.

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