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The world says yes to a cradle to grave plastics treaty: Now the work begins

  • 175 countries unanimously agreed last week on a United Nations framework to fight global plastic pollution from cradle to grave. Reluctant nations, including India and Japan, sought a far more limited agreement only dealing with ocean plastic pollution. But they acquiesced in the end.
  • A committee will shortly begin work on drafting the treaty, determining global rules, and financing and enforcement mechanisms, with a goal of finishing by the end of 2024.
  • While many crucial details remain to be worked out over the next two years, the UN resolution calls for a combination of required and “voluntary actions” to address the cradle to grave plastics crisis. The document even addresses the extraction of chemicals used in production, meaning the final treaty could seriously impact the oil industry.
  • Also, wealthier nations may be called on to provide assistance to less developed ones. Environmental groups are pleased with the agreement, though caution that much work lies ahead. The plastics industry had hoped for a far more limited agreement and it is expected to offer input on the final shape of the treaty.

Last week the world agreed to move forward on a landmark international agreement to control plastic pollution. Now the real work begins on vigorously turning that consensus into reality.

Peru, Rwanda, Norway and the European Union (EU) led the fight for a comprehensive plastics treaty, with all 175 countries participating in the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, voting on March 2 to approve a resolution called “End plastic pollution: Towards an international legally binding instrument.”

The framework calls for global rules, financing and enforcement mechanisms aimed at regulating plastics from manufacture through disposal, all to hopefully be hammered out by the end of 2024, with the final treaty language negotiated before 2025. The final resolution, however, calls the end of 2024 timeframe “an ambition,” not a deadline.

A beach cluttered with plastic debris. Tropical nations have been inundated by plastics washing up on their shores. Invisible waste in the form of microplastics is also polluting Earth’s land, water and atmosphere. Image by Dustin Woodhouse via Unsplash.

The UN nations meeting in Nairobi last week realized the world can’t just recycle and burn its way out of the plastics crisis. Instead, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) lists goals to offer “diverse alternatives to address the full lifecycle of plastics, the design of reusable and recyclable products and materials, and the need for enhanced international collaboration to facilitate access to technology, capacity building and scientific and technical cooperation.”

UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen called the treaty agreement “the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the Paris accord,” signed in 2015 to combat climate change.

In May, an ad hoc open-ended UNEA working group will meet in Senegal to create a timetable, rules of procedure and organization for an international negotiating committee that will then take over the process. “All members of the UN General Assembly will be invited to participate,” said Andersen.

This second group will take charge sometime after June and convene a forum in October or November 2022, with more major meetings likely over the next two years. The plan ultimately calls for a diplomatic conference at which nations will sign the final agreement.

In the meantime, Andersen said, “UNEP will work with any willing government and business across the value chain to shift away from single-use plastics, as well as to mobilize private finance and remove barriers to investments in research and in a new circular economy.”

Plastic production by region in 2019 (in percent). The treaty is a major win for environmentalists because it will focus on plastics from cradle to grave and not just on disposal. Image courtesy of Statista.

Combining voluntary and binding approaches

In the end, even Japan and India — nations that offered watered-down treaty alternatives that dealt only with ocean pollution — accepted the final accord. Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi, Japan’s environment minister, concluded that “the resolution will clearly take us towards a future with no plastic pollution, including in the marine environment.… United, we can make it happen. Together, let us go forward as we start the negotiations towards a better future with no plastic pollution.”

India initially held firm against restrictions on production, but was persuaded to go along, likely because the final agreement four times references “voluntary” approaches on matters that include ocean pollution prevention and dealing with the entire plastic “lifecycle.”

The UNEA resolution acknowledges that the final agreement “could include both binding and voluntary approaches,” and emphasizes the “need for a financial mechanism to support the implementation of the instrument, including the option of a dedicated multilateral fund.”

Stomach contents of a dead albatross chick. Plastic debris is estimated to cause the deaths of more than a million seabirds every year, as well as more than 100,000 marine mammals, according to UNESCO. Image by Chris Jordan via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

The treaty resolution also offers some wiggle room in meeting its goals, calling for “flexibility that some provisions could allow countries discretion in implementation of their commitments taking into account the national circumstances.”

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this global problem,” said the U.S. State Department in a statement provided to Mongabay. “That’s why it is important that a new global agreement provide flexibility for countries to contribute to a common objective through ambitious national action plans and country-driven approaches. Different countries may favor different approaches toward addressing the full lifecycle of plastics depending on their national circumstances, including their ability to manage waste in an environmentally sound manner.”

The format and extent of public participation in treaty negotiations remain among issues yet to be decided by the parties. One potential innovation: The Greta Thunbergs of the world may get to take part. “There is high expectation of youth and children participating,” in the process, said Andrės del Castillo, senior attorney for the Center for International Environmental Law.

He acknowledges that another round of negotiations could be necessary, pushing the treaty timeframe past 2024. He noted one potential political hitch in the plan: Depending on the 2024 U.S. election outcome, the administration of President Joe Biden could be ending then, with his predecessor, Donald Trump, wanting the job back. Trump opposed the concept of a plastics treaty and pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Accord (which the U.S. under Biden rejoined).

Attorney del Castillo also explained that the treaty committee will need to determine how best to merge the plastic agreement with other existing UN environmental treaties, which cover everything from air pollution to hazardous waste transport and biological diversity. He suggested that creating a timeframe under the treaty to phase out single-use plastics is important.

Plastic waste generation per person, 2010. Image courtesy of Our World in Data.

A flexible process and vision

“We’ll need to be creative” on the financing mechanisms, which might include a tax on certain industries,” del Castillo said.

The framework is designed to encourage flexibility by not restricting negotiations on any topic that is not specifically mentioned in the resolution, such as the role of local communities and the extent of participation by Pacific and Caribbean islands who are greatly affected by ocean health.

“It is a really momentous agreement that was approved unanimously,” says an upbeat Graham Forbes, global plastics project lead at Greenpeace USA, an NGO that fought hard for a treaty. But he cautions: “This is really the beginning of the process. We’ll be scaling up our efforts to communicate with governments, to pressure corporations to support the treaty. We’re still sorting out the nitty-gritty on the process itself.” Greenpeace plans to push for wealthier Northern Hemisphere participants like the United States and EU to provide financial and technical help to the less-industrialized Global South.

“While we have a rare opportunity to demonstrate the power of multilateralism to solve complex problems… it isn’t going to happen unless wealthier nations step up and offer the support to countries that need it to fully participate,” Forbes says.

While environmentalists are expressing optimism, the plastics industry is concerned about the UN resolution. It had hoped for an agreement that would deal mainly with recycling/reuse as opposed to regulating production. The treaty resolution, in fact, even addresses the extraction of chemicals used in production, meaning it could seriously impact the oil industry.

Tony Radoszewski, CEO of the Plastics Industry Association (PIA) in Washington, DC, issued a statement indicating PIA intends to continue trying to shape, and potentially limit, the final agreement. It reads:

We welcome the discussion happening at UNEA that seeks solutions to the issue of plastic pollution. Our members share the goal of keeping any of the products they manufacture from ever getting into the environment and we look forward to participating in the dialogue set forth by the resolution, the creation of an intergovernmental negotiating committee and the subsequent meetings in the coming years. Plastics improve the quality of life. And, when used and disposed of responsibly, play a major role in ensuring a more sustainable world. We are confident that a process in which science and policy work together will recognize the important role of plastics for society and sustainable development.

PIA spokesperson Jim Moore told Mongabay, “We don’t have anything to add beyond the scope of the press release at present.”

A trash picker looks for recyclable plastics at a waste dump in Bali. Image by Jonas Gratzer for Mongabay.

The unknown road ahead

The promising UNEA consensus achieved last week came as the crisis in Ukraine deepened, with the unfolding war there darkening hopes for the global future. Both Ukraine and Russia sent delegations to the Nairobi meeting, but neither made opening statements, as many other nations did. The U.S., EU and others did use the forum to condemn the Russian attack on its neighbor.

The EU’s opening statement said the forum is “a celebration saddened by the act of aggression by the Russian Federation against a neighboring country, which has led to a war breaking out in Europe. In these dark hours, our thoughts are with Ukraine and the innocent women, men and children that are victims of this attack.” Non-members Ukraine and Montenegro endorsed the statement.

One ray of hope: Both warring parties voted yes on the plastics treaty.

Banner image: A landfill inundated with plastic waste in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Image by MARUF_RAHMAN via Pixabay.

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Data from a 2015-report on global plastic production forecasts an exponential future trend. The UN plastics treaty could blunt that rise in waste, but only if the agreement is given teeth. Image courtesy of Basel Convention.