A triumph for the planet over plastic pollution

Member states at the United Nations Environment Assembly (Unea-5) in Nairobi have unanimously agreed to develop a legally binding treaty to end plastic pollution, a decision that has been hailed as the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the Paris accord and the Montreal Protocol.

The conclusion of Unea 5.2 saw the adoption of a landmark mandate to negotiate a legally binding treaty addressing the full life cycle of plastic from production to disposal. 

“Against the backdrop of geopolitical turmoil, the UN Environment Assembly shows multilateral cooperation at its best,” said Espen Barth Eide, the president of Unea-5 and Norway’s minister for climate and the environment, in a statement on Wednesday. “Plastic pollution has grown into an epidemic. With today’s resolution we are officially on track for a cure.” 

The UN Environment Programme (Unep) said that the resolution, based on three initial draft resolutions from various nations, establishes an international negotiating committee (INC), which will be tasked with drafting and ratifying the treaty over the next two years, with the ambition of completing a draft global legally binding agreement by the end of 2024.

“It is expected to present a legally binding instrument, which would reflect 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 said.

“Today marks a triumph by planet earth over single-use plastics,” said Inger Andersen, the executive director of Unep. “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.”

Peru’s draft resolution, proposed together with the government of Rwanda, contributed to the final resolution. “We appreciate the support received from the various countries during this negotiation process,” said Modesto Montoya, Peru’s minister of environment. “Peru will promote a new agreement that prevents and reduces plastic pollution, promotes a circular economy and addresses the full life cycle of plastics.”

The world has come together to act against plastic pollution, a serious threat to the planet, said Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya, Rwanda’s minister of environment. 

“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.”

In their statement, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (Gaia) and other members of the #breakfreefromplastic said according to the mandate, the treaty will tackle the whole lifecycle of plastic, not only post-consumer waste. “This is a critical shift in international policymakers’ approach to the crisis, which previously focused on plastic as a ‘marine litter’ issue. 

“Perhaps most significantly, the mandate recommends measures to tackle plastic production, which as of now is slated to almost quadruple by 2050 and take up 10% to 13% of the global carbon budget, endangering our climate. In this watershed moment, governments are finally acknowledging that cleaning up plastic waste is not enough. It’s time to turn off the tap. “

Niven Reddy, the Africa coordinator for Gaia, said it is promising that the mandate will look at plastic across its entire life cycle, shifting us away from problematic end-of-pipe interventions like waste incineration, and instead addressing the issue further upstream, in its production phase. “This milestone could not have happened without a global movement pushing decision makers every step of the way.” 

Jane Patton, plastics and petrochemicals campaign manager at the Centre for International Environmental Law, said establishing the mandate for an international legally binding treaty on plastics was only possible because of the “incredible civil society and stakeholders who coordinated to advocate with our governments from across the world, representing folks affected by every phase of the plastic life cycle”.

“We have come together to advance critical information and positions to change the direction of negotiations. This work is evident in references in the negotiation mandate to human health, the relevance of climate to the plastics crisis, and for the first time, acknowledgement of traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples and the recognition of the essential role that waste pickers play in solutions to the plastics crisis. 

“Now, as we head into the hard work of negotiating the treaty itself, it will be essential to ensure that the doors to public participation remain open and that human rights and social and environmental justice remain foundational to the treaty.”

Plastic pollution is not a challenge for any one individual, society or country alone, said Prabhat Upadhyaya, senior policy analyst, climate and plastics at World Wildlife Fund South Africa. “It is also not a crisis of the future but of the present, not limited to any one location but all around us. It affects individual species as well as entire ecosystems. In doing so, it threatens the wellbeing of societies and economies that are dependent on their health.

“It is in this context that WWF welcomes the consensus decision of the 195 UN member states, to start the negotiations towards an ambitious treaty to address plastic pollution. In addition to being legally binding, the treaty also needs to build provisions for making financial, technological and capacity building support available and accessible to enable and strengthen effective implementation by developing countries, especially for African countries.”

Graham Forbes, global plastic project lead at Greenpeace USA, said that on Wednesday, global leaders sitting in Nairobi “heard the millions of voices around the world who are demanding an end to the plastic pollution crisis. 

“This is a clear acknowledgment that the entire lifecycle of plastic, from fossil fuel extraction to disposal, creates pollution that is harmful to people and the planet. This is a big step that will keep the pressure on big oil and big brands to reduce their plastic footprint and switch their business models to refill and reuse.”

Alhassan Sesay, the founder and president of The Sierra Leone School Green Clubs, is hopeful the roadmap will bring an end to plastic pollution in  communities, especially in Africa, which have been dumping sites from the Global North. 

“We would like to see action follow words. Africa should not be a dumping site for plastic industries.”

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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