Global Plastics Treaty
The most significant environmental deal
since the 2015 Paris climate accord
For the first time, the international community has agreed on a framework to curb the world’s growing plastic problem: a legally binding treaty to “end plastic pollution.”
On March 02, world leaders at a United Nations conference in Kenya agreed to work together in the biggest-ever push to stem the flood of plastic pollution when the UN Environment Assembly adopted a resolution that paves the way for a legally binding agreement on plastic pollution by 2024. The resolution, entitled: “End Plastic Pollution: Towards an internationally legally binding instrument,” was adopted on the third day of the biennial UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, where more than 175 countries were represented. It calls for the creation of an intergovernmental negotiating committee to hash out details of a treaty by the end of 2024. The vote was unanimous, with almost 200 nations agreeing to create an intergovernmental committee to negotiate the terms of the treaty. The resolution, which UNEA calls “the most significant environmental deal since the Paris accord,” is written in broad strokes and an intergovernmental committee is now tasked with negotiating a binding treaty that will have ripple effects on businesses and economies around the world.
What is plastic?
Plastic is one of the most useful materials on the planet. It’s used in everything from packaging the food we eat to making up the fibers in the clothes we wear. Its applications stretch to building materials and medical masks. But plastic is also responsible for destroying ecosystems and polluting waterways. In 1950, the world produced nearly 2 million tons of plastic. Annual production today is more than 200 times greater. Virgin plastic production has risen from two million tons per year in 1950, to 367 million in 2020 and is projected to exceed a billion tons by 2050. At the same time, there has been a sharp rise in plastic leakage into the environment in recent years, and the trend is only set to continue.
How is it dangerous?
Scientists say plastics cause harm throughout their life cycle, releasing toxic as well as planet-warming greenhouse gases during production, landfill and incineration. Plastics, which are manufactured from fossil fuels, caused 4.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2015, one recent study estimated.
Two traits that make plastics so valuable are also the ones which make them so dangerous: Plastic is cheap and hard to break down. Because the material doesn’t decompose naturally, plastic that gets into ecosystems stays there for hundreds of years.
Why the treaty?
Until now, there has been no overarching approach to tackling this crisis. The current regulations are fragmented and unable to meet the severity of the situation head-on. A combination of voluntary approaches and bans on selected items offer no match for corporate greenwashing and unabated plastic production. The toxic legacy resulting from the rampant overproduction of virgin plastics and their life cycles is irreversible. But business-as-usual doesn’t have to continue.
What will the committee do?
The intergovernmental negotiating committee is to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment henceforth referred to as the instrument, which could include both binding and voluntary approaches, based on a comprehensive approach that addresses the full lifecycle of plastic, taking into account, among other things, the principles of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, as well as national circumstances and capabilities, including provisions:
(a) To specify the objectives of the instrument;
(b) To promote sustainable production and consumption of plastics, including, among others, product design, and environmentally sound waste management, including through resource efficiency and circular economy approaches;
(c) To promote national and international cooperative measures to reduce plastic pollution in the marine environment, including existing plastic pollution;
(d) To develop, implement and update national action plans reflecting country-driven approaches to contribute to the objectives of the instrument;
(e) To promote national action plans to work towards the prevention, reduction and elimination of plastic pollution, and to support regional and international cooperation;
(f) To specify national reporting, as appropriate;
(g) To periodically assess the progress of implementation of the instrument;
(h) To periodically assess the effectiveness of the instrument in achieving its objectives;
(i) To provide scientific and socio-economic assessments related to plastic pollution;
(j) To increase knowledge through awareness-raising, education and information exchange;
(k) To promote cooperation and coordination with relevant regional and international conventions, instruments and organizations, while recognizing their respective mandates, avoiding duplication, and promoting complementarity of action;
(l) To encourage action by all stakeholders, including the private sector, and to promote cooperation at the global, regional, national and local levels;
(m) To initiate a multi-stakeholder action agenda;
(n) To specify arrangements for capacity-building and technical assistance, technology transfer on mutually agreed terms, and financial assistance, recognizing that the effective implementation of some legal obligations under the instrument is dependent on the availability of capacity building and technical and adequate financial assistance;
(o) To promote research and development of sustainable, affordable, innovative and cost-efficient approaches;
(p) To address compliance;
The committee, in its deliberations on the instrument, shall consider the following:
(a) Obligations, measures and voluntary approaches in supporting the achievements of the objectives of the instrument;
(b) The need for a financial mechanism to support the implementation of the instrument, including the option of a dedicated multilateral fund;
(c) Flexibility that some provisions could allow countries discretion in the implementation of their commitments taking into account the national circumstances;
(d) The best available science, traditional knowledge, knowledge of indigenous peoples and local knowledge systems;
(e) Lessons learned and best practices, including those from informal and cooperative settings;
(f) The possibility of a mechanism to provide policy- relevant scientific and socio-economic information and assessment related to plastic pollution;
(g) Efficient organization and streamlined secretariat arrangements; and
(h) Consider any other aspects that the intergovernmental negotiating committee may consider relevant.
Any treaty that puts restrictions on plastic production, use or design would impact oil and chemicals companies that make raw plastic, as well as consumer goods giants that sell thousands of products in single-use packaging. This would also have a significant impact on the economies of major plastic-producing countries, including the United States, India, China and Japan.
A promising start
Broadly speaking, the resolution shows that the narrative has moved beyond the narrow scope of considering the issue as “just plastic in the oceans”. It has now been officially recognised as a problem that spans the entire lifecycle of plastics and their impact on all environments and human health. Critically, the mandate also includes language around sustainable production and consumption of plastics, as well as product design and the environmentally sound management of waste.
Moreover, we have the prospect of a legal agreement that could eventually monitor and reduce the rampant production of virgin plastics, while simultaneously taking steps to phase out problematic products and financially supporting developing countries on the path to implementation.
The writer is a CSS aspirant.