UN nations agree to ‘historic’ plastic pollution treaty

Today (2 March), representatives at the UN’s Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) in Nairobi have endorsed a resolution to end plastic pollution and complete an international legally binding agreement by 2024.

Baled plastic bottle wasteThe resolution – ‘End plastic pollution: Towards an internationally legally binding instrument’ – took influence from three draft resolutions from various nations, establishing an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) to formulate the draft, which will commence work this year.

The agreement will reflect ‘diverse alternatives’ to address the full lifecycle of plastics, the design of reusable and recyclable materials, and the need for more international collaboration in support of technology, capacity building, and scientific cooperation.

Alongside the INC’s first session, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) will also convene by the end of 2022 to share knowledge and harbour open discussion among stakeholders to ensure they are informed by science, before reporting on progress over the next two years. Upon its completion, UNEP will assemble a diplomatic conference to adopt the finalised agreement and open it for signatures.

The adoption came upon the conclusion of the three-day UNEA-5.2 meeting, fulfilling the assembly’s goal for an agreement among its 193 attending nations on policies to address current environmental challenges.

Curbing plastic pollution stands at the centre of the UN’s environmental goals, with exposure to plastics posing serious threats to human health and air quality. It is reported that shifting to a circular economy can reduce the amount of plastics in oceans by over 80 per cent by 2040, a significant reduction from the 11 million tonnes currently entering the planet’s oceans each year.

Such a move, the international body says, could also reduce virgin plastic production by 55 per cent, and reduce greenhouse gas emission by 25 per cent, for which plastic production currently accounts 15 per cent.

‘A triumph by planet earth over single-use plastics’

Espen Barth Eide, President of UNEA-5 and Norway’s Minister for Climate and the Environment, said: “Against the backdrop of geopolitical turmoil, the UN Environment Assembly shows multilateral cooperation at its best. Plastic pollution has grown into an epidemic. With today’s resolution we are officially on track for a cure.”

Executive Director of UNEP, Inger Anderson, commented: “Today marks a triumph by planet earth over single-use plastics. This is the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the Paris accord. It is an insurance policy for this generation and future ones, so they may live with plastic and not be doomed by it.

“Let it be clear that the INC’s mandate does not grant any stakeholder a two-year pause. In parallel to negotiations over an international binding agreement, UNEP will work with any willing government and business across the value chain to shift away from single-use plastics, as well as to mobilise private finance and remove barriers to investments in research and in a new circular economy.”

Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi, Japan’s Environment Minister, whose draft resolution contributed to the final resolution, stated: “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.”

Peru’s Environment Minister, Modesto Montoya, whose draft resolution also contributed to the final resolution, noted: "We appreciate the support received from the various countries during this negotiation process. Peru will promote a new agreement that prevents and reduces plastic pollution, promotes a circular economy and addresses the full life cycle of plastics.”

Dr Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya, Rwanda's Minister of Environment, added: “The world has come together to act against plastic pollution – a serious threat to our planet. International partnerships will be crucial in tackling a problem that affects all of us, and the progress made at UNEA reflects this spirit of collaboration.

“We look forward to working with the INC and are optimistic about the opportunity to create a legally binding treaty as a framework for national ambition-setting, monitoring, investment, and knowledge transfer to end plastic pollution.”

World leaders ‘have listened’

Sian Sutherland, A Plastic Planet Co-founder, said: "Last year A Plastic Planet called for a global treaty to tackle plastic pollution, and the world's leaders have listened. We applaud the UNEA for seeing through the fossil fuel lobbying, acknowledging that we must consider the impact of plastic through its entire lifecycle, its impact on health, and crucially, making this treaty legally binding.  These three points are fundamentally key to the treaty being effective.

"This is a huge opportunity for governments around the world to turn the tide on plastic and show industry that simply pumping out plastic with no responsibility for the devastation it causes is no longer acceptable. Plastic is not a pollution problem or even a waste problem. It is a design problem, a production problem and this is where industry has a great opportunity to be a part of the solution now.  A Plastic Planet urges every stakeholder to seize it with both hands, build national action plans and enact a treaty that will measurably loosen fossil fuel plastic's grip on our planet.”