It has been dubbed the most significant environmental deal since the 2015 Paris Agreement to cut global greenhouse gas emissions.
On Wednesday, 175 nations agreed to create the world’s first-ever global plastic pollution treaty at a meeting in Nairobi, Kenya of the United Nations Environment Assembly, the leading global voice on the environment.
The pact means that work will now begin to set out legally binding rules which should be finalized by the end of 2024, and address “the full lifecycle of plastic from source to sea”.
Around 11 million tonnes of plastic waste end up in the ocean every year, a figure that may triple in the coming decades. Research has shown that by 2050, there could be more plastic in the world’s waters than fish.
The Independent breaks down with the international move is meaningful.
An ‘epidemic’, billions of bottles and bags in the making
Plastic pollution “has grown into an epidemic”, said Norway’s Minister for Climate and the Environment, Espen Barth Eide, who presided over the meeting in Kenya.
Humans produce about 300 million tonnes of plastic waste annually, equivalent to the weight of every single person on the planet. Half of those products are intended for single use.
And while millions of tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean – impacting more than 800 marine and coastal species – even more goes to landfills. Over the past 70 years, approximately three-quarters of the estimated 9.2 billion tonnes of plastic produced was thrown away.
harm to health
The new agreement specifically recognizes that “plastic pollution includes microplastics”. These micro- and nanoscopic pieces, which break down from larger plastic waste, have been found throughout our food and water systems; in human organs and newborn babies.
A 2019 study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, found that humans may be consuming 39,000 to 52,000 microplastic particles each year.
Exposure to plastics can harm human health, UNEP reports, potentially affecting fertility, hormonal, metabolic and neurological activity. Burning plastic waste releases heavy metals and toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, contributing to air pollution, and is linked to respiratory diseases and cancer.
Plastics = climate change
A significant climate cost comes with all this wasted plastic. Some 98 per cent of single-use products are made from fossil fuels with main ingredients including naphtha, a crude oil–based substance, and a liquid natural gas, ethane.
The planet-heating emissions from the production, use and disposal of conventional fossil fuel-based plastics is predicted to increase to 19 per cent of the global carbon budget by 2040, UNEP reports.
Addressing the ‘life-cycle’
The UN resolution takes a holistic approach to the plastic problem, looking not just at the end product but the raw materials.
It recognizes that a “wide range” of sustainable alternatives and technologies, along with international cooperation, will be needed to rethink plastic packaging along with collection and reprocessing infrastructure.
Plastic that can’t be eliminated instead need to be reusable, recyclable or compostable. This shift, to what’s described as the “circular economy”, is expected to cut plastic flowing into the ocean more than 80 per cent by 2040, and reduce virgin plastic production in half.
The international agreement is expected to save governments $70bn over the next two decades, and cut emissions by 25 per cent.
The inclusion of plastics’ “life-cycle” in the text will not be welcome news for the major oil and chemical companies who manufacture plastics, and were working to keep the UN talks focused on waste management and recycling, over design and creation.
The agreement also recognizes “the significant contribution” made by workers under informal and cooperative settings to collect, sort and recycle plastics in many countries. UNEP says that tackling plastic pollution will create 700,000 more jobs – mainly in the global South.
‘A triumph by planet Earth’
Against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and growing political polarization, members from the 175 countries who signed the deal were quick to point out that, when it came to a hatred of plastic pollution, nations spoke as one.
“Against the backdrop of geopolitical turmoil, the UN Environment Assembly shows multilateral cooperation at its best,” said Norway’s Minister Eide.
Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP, added that it was a “triumph by planet earth over single-use plastics”.
“This is the most significant multilateral environmental 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,” she said.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.