Technical assistance

Plastic Pollution: A Global Treaty Drafted to End Plastic Pollution

Senior UN official says draft treaty to tackle plastic pollution will be ‘biggest multilateral environmental deal’ since 2015 Paris climate accord


March 1, 2022

Plastic trash collected on East Island in Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge

All Canada Stock Photos / Alamy

Nearly 200 governments have tentatively agreed to a legally binding global treaty to end the plastic pollution crisis by tackling the entire material supply chain, how Inger Andersonexecutive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, says it will be the “biggest multilateral environmental deal” since the 2015 Paris climate accord.

At a meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) in Nairobi, Kenya, this week, countries hammered out a draft agreement on the first treaty to directly tackle the 9 billion tonnes of plastic produced since the plastic age accelerated in the 1950s. The final deal is expected to be finalized tomorrow, kicking off the establishment of a treaty by 2024 or 2025.

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

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The draft agreement that has emerged supports the Peru-Rwanda approach. Basically, the elements of the treaty will be legally binding. It also recognizes that low-income countries will have a harder time tackling plastic and pollution than high-income countries and therefore there is a need for some sort of funding model to help reduce the plastic use and waste.

“We now have a text, it talks about the full life cycle, it talks about a legal obligation, it talks about a financing mechanism, it talks about understanding that some countries can do it more easily than others”, Anderson said. “It’s been a long and hard road, but I’m very happy with the text we’re seeing now.” However, she points out that it remains a draft.

Anderson compared the agreement to earlier environmental treaties such as the Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and the Minamata Convention on mercury pollution, both of which have led to massive reductions in emissions. of these harmful chemicals. These are proof that global agreements can make governments and industry work differently, she says. “We’ve done this before.”

The world produces 381 million tons of plastic in 2015, and hundreds of thousands of tonnes are estimated to end up in the oceans each year, with most coming from low- and middle-income countries with less capacity to burn or recycle them. Pervasive plastic pollution has been linked to negative impacts on marine life, and there are fears it could affect our health as well, although more work is needed to establish this.

Not addressing the problem is not an option, Anderson said. “Young people today, voters, ordinary people, are just disgusted when they go to the coast and see this stuff,” she says.

Steve Flecher 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 entire 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.”

The exact measures that should be adopted under a global plastics treaty, and the teeth the deal might have, will now need to be worked out before it comes into force. Anderson hopes to achieve this within three years. She says that the fact that the project asks for legally binding elements is important. An example of how this could be implemented is to limit the amount of virgin polymer invested in savings, she says. However, some elements of the treaty will not be legally binding, such as technical assistance, she adds.

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

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