Equilibrium & Sustainability

Countries commit to develop legally binding plastics agreement


Heads of state and environment ministers from 175 countries endorsed a resolution on Wednesday to develop a legally binding pact to address a global plague of plastic pollution.

The world leaders signed the “End Plastic Pollution” resolution at the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) in Nairobi, where they pledged to address the full life cycle of plastic — including its production, design and disposal — in an agreement by 2024. The treaty would include alternatives such as the design of reusable and recyclable materials, while increasing accessibility to necessary technologies through international collaboration, according to the resolution.

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

The resolution, which is based on three initial drafts, establishes an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) that will begin working on the text of the legally binding agreement this year. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) said it will hold a forum open to all stakeholders in conjunction with the INC by the end of 2022, to share best practices and knowledge.

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

Among the requirements of the binding agreement will be the inclusion of provisions “to promote sustainable production and consumption of plastics,” such as improved waste management, greater resource efficiency and the adoption of circular economy approaches, according to Wednesday’s resolution.

The agreement will also need to promote national and international cooperative measures to reduce plastic pollution, as well as develop, implement and update national action plans that work toward preventing, reducing and eliminating such pollution. In addition, the treaty must specify national reporting requirements when appropriate and periodically assess the progress of the pact’s implementation.

Also critical to the treaty will be elements to promote cooperation with relevant regional and International organizations, as well as to encourage action from the private sector, according to the resolution. The discussions that occur over the next two years will be “open” and “informed by science,” according to UNEP.

“Let it be clear that the INC’s mandate does not grant any stakeholder a two-year pause,” Andersen said. “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 mobilize private finance and remove barriers to investments in research and in a new circular economy.”

Worldwide plastic production has surged from 2 million tons in 1950 to 348 million tons in 2017, growing to a global industry that is valued at $522.6 billion and that is expected to double in capacity by 2040, a news release from UNEP accompanying the treaty said. By 2050, greenhouse gas emissions linked to plastic production, use and disposal is projected to account for 15 percent of permissible emissions under the international goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), according to UNEP.

More than 800 marine species are impacted by plastic pollution by getting entangled in or ingesting these particles, while exposure to plastics can harm human fertility, hormonal, metabolic and neurological activity, the news release said.

By shifting to a circular economy — a model that maximizes the lifecycle of products and optimizes recycling — countries could reduce the volume of plastics entering oceans by more than 80 percent by 2040, reduce virgin plastic production by 55 percent and save governments $70 billion by 2040, according to UNEP.

Both green groups and members of the plastic industry applauded the adoption of Wednesday’s resolution.

The International Council of Chemical Associations — a global trade association of plastics corporations, which includes members of the American Chemistry Council — said in a statement that it “is pleased with the outcome and fully supports a legally binding agreement on plastic pollution.”

“Specifically, the broad mandate of the resolution provides governments with the flexibility to identify binding and voluntary measures across the full lifecycle of plastics, while recognizing there is no single approach to solving this global challenge,” the council said.

Greenpeace, meanwhile, commended world leaders for their “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,” a statement from Greenpeace said.

The Worldwide Wildlife Fund (WWF) commended the American delegation and the international community for reaching what the organization described as a “historic agreement” that is poised to solve the pollution crisis and “achieve a strong circular economy.”

“In the next two years, we must work to ensure this treaty reaches its full potential,” a statement from the WWF said. “We are committed to ending plastic pollution and to working with governments, businesses and civil society to meet the commitments laid out in this impressive framework.” 


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