Keywords: Plastic pollution, UNEA, Environment
Early March 2022 saw the fifth United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) in Nairobi, Kenya. The UNEA is the highest-level international decision-making body on the environment, gathering delegates from 175 UN member countries to set shared goals and coordinate policy on global environmental issues. In a remarkable achievement, governments agreed at UNEA on a resolution to launch negotiations on a legally binding international instrument on plastic pollution.
Unthinkable just a few years ago, the UNEA resolution defines the scope and aims of the negotiations and sets in motion a process for concluding a new treaty by the end of 2024.
In recent years, the crisis of plastic pollution has galvanised extraordinary collaborations among governments, scientists, environmental NGOs and activists, as well as businesses working world wide to push for stronger and faster global action. The fact that governments have agreed to move ahead on what will be the most important environmental deal since the Paris climate agreement is not only a huge win for multilateralism but underlines the value of multi-stakeholder approaches to global governance.
Getting an international treaty on plastic pollution in place in just two years is a big ask. An even bigger task is to conclude a legally binding international treaty that remains true to the vision and scope of the resolution, includes ambitious commitments, galvanizes meaningful action and secures effective, accountable global governance. This will require sustained political pressure, resolve and engagement throughout the negotiations.
A multi-faceted plastics crisis
To understand the challenges at hand, it is vital to bear in mind the scale and multiple dimensions of the plastics crisis as well as the political economy of the plastics sector.
Although plastics are useful and versatile materials for a vast array of applications, they have become a global threat. The negative environmental consequences of plastic pollution range from whales starving after filling their guts with plastics to marine species entangled in lost plastic fishing nets (so called ghost nets), the diffusion of toxic chemicals used as additives in plastics, pollution from plastic production and waste incineration, as well as sewage systems, vital water ways, and agricultural fields blighted by the accumulation of plastics and associated contamination. Plastics are now found everywhere, from mountain peaks in the Arctic to the depths of the oceans and in our food chain.
Across the world, low-income communities in vulnerable situations are on the front lines of the environment and health impacts of unsustainable plastic production, use and disposal. Plastic pollution undermines the well-being of communities and workers that rely on sectors such as tourism, agriculture and fisheries for their livelihoods, and it generates significant economic costs for governments faced with managing ever mounting volumes of plastic waste.
The need for a system change approach
Tackling this multi-faceted crisis will require a system change approach that harnesses all available policy levers and stakeholders. Research has amply shown that interventions focusing only on waste collection, disposal and recycling will at best maintain plastic pollution at current levels but not reduce it.
Ending plastic pollution will require a recognition that we cannot produce ever growing volumes of plastics from fossil fuel resources, the majority of which are only used for a short time before being discarded and then either incinerated, landfilled, or dumped. A comprehensive, multi-pronged approach will have to include reduction of overall production and consumption of plastics, which will simultaneously reduce use of fossil fuel resources, the environmental impacts of their extraction, and the skyrocketing greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants from plastics production. Further, a transformation in design and production processes will be needed to ensure that those plastics that are produced are non-toxic, reusable, recyclable and leave no trace in nature, and to protect workers and surrounding communities from environmental and health hazards.
The road to UNEA
Leading up to UNEA, a Ministerial Conference on Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution in 2021, hosted by Ecuador, Germany, Ghana and Vietnam, resulted in a Ministerial Statement calling for the launch of negotiations, backed by a broad diversity of governments. It was followed by two draft resolutions for UNEA. One draft resolution was proposed by Peru and Rwanda and the second by Japan. While both called for swifter, stronger action and a global agreement, the two proposals differed in both the proposed scope and framework of an agreement. The Japanese proposal focused primarily on reducing marine plastic pollution and favoured stronger national action, proposing technical and financial assistance to countries most in need. The draft resolution from Rwanda and Peru addressed all plastic pollution (i.e. including pollution in soils, rivers, and all other ecosystems). It also explicitly connected pollution to the ways we produce and consume plastics, calling for action across the ‘full life cycle’ of plastics. This draft resolution also proposed a specific multilateral fund to support the implementation of the agreement as well as a dedicated body to provide scientific advice.
Meanwhile, the oil, chemicals and plastic industries actively lobbied policymakers, arguing that a global treaty must not aim to cap global production or ban single-use plastics. At UNEA, governments successfully resisted the worst of this pressure, and remarkably, produced a resolution that was even more ambitious and comprehensive than either draft resolution, despite the inevitable process of comprises that international negotiations demand.
What’s in the UNEA resolution and what are some key priorities for the negotiations ahead?
The final resolution adopted at UNEA calls for negotiations on an instrument on “plastic pollution,” including, but not limited to, pollution in the marine environment (i.e. the resolution addresses pollution in all environments). It also specifically recognises the importance of microplastic pollution, the risks of plastic pollution to human health, and the climate impact of the plastics crisis. The adopted resolution calls for comprehensive approaches to address pollution across the full life cycle of plastics. In addition, the resolution identifies the need for “sustainable production and consumption” through “resource efficiency and circular economy approaches,” including through national action plans toward the prevention, reduction and elimination of plastic pollution as well as action by all stakeholders, including the private sector.
While the resolution does not directly address the sensitive issue of reducing the total quantity of plastic churned out each year, its repeated emphasis on promoting “sustainable production and consumption” provides a critical opening for governments to ensure that the international instrument boosts cooperation on both ‘downstream’ priorities, like improved collection and management of plastic waste, as well as ‘upstream’ strategies vital to reducing both plastic pollution across the full life cycle of plastics – from the extraction of fossil fuels (which are the key feedstocks for 98-99% of plastics) and the production of primary plastics to the design and manufacture, consumption, and disposal of products as well as clean up of existing pollution.
Looking upstream, the commitment to producing a deal that addresses resource efficiency and circular economy approaches must be translated into goals and targets for reducing the production of virgin plastics (e.g., plastic resins and fibres made from fossil fuel feedstocks that are the basis of plastic products); ending the manufacture of unnecessary and harmful plastics; improving the design of materials and products – from packaging and cars to clothes – to be less wasteful and eliminate harmful chemicals; ensuring products can be repaired, remanufactured, reused or safely recycled; and promoting business and consumer practices, substitutes, services, and retail models that reduce overall demand for plastics and minimize the generation of waste.
The final treaty must include mechanisms to ensure that developing countries and countries with economies in transition have access to the finance, technologies, capacity building and scientific cooperation needed to support the shift to sustainable production and consumption and to expand environmentally sound waste management. It must address the interests and well-being of waste pickers, which currently do around 60% of the collection and sorting of plastic waste in developing countries. And the final treaty must tackle the health and environmental hazards of chemical pollution associated with plastics and additives, bearing in mind the right of all citizens to a healthy environment.
Sustaining momentum, resisting pressures, identifying pathways for transformation and just transition
As negotiations advance, governments will need to stay focused, resist pressures to backslide on ambition, and sustain determination to advance a full life cycle approach. The global plastics economy is powered by some of the world’s largest companies, many keen to be part of the solution, but some with strong vested interests in the status quo. Here, the stark and sobering reality is that the plastic industry is expecting to double production by 2040 and is investing billions of dollars in expanding the infrastructure for producing virgin, (fossil fuel-based) plastics.
Over the next two years, we can expect the oil, chemical, and plastics industries to work to limit the scope of the treaty if it threatens this future growth. These industries routinely engage in lobbying against policies aiming to mitigate the negative environmental effects of plastics. The American Chemical Council lobbied against restrictions on exports of plastic waste and products during the negotiations for a trade deal between the US and Kenya. European Plastics Converters argued for rolling back the EU directive on single-use plastics during the Covid pandemic. Leading firms in the plastics industry have also lobbied against climate policies that would tackle their enormous carbon footprint and reduce subsidies to the fossil fuels they rely on.
In this context, realising the ambition of a new international treaty to end plastic pollution will call for complementary attention to how we can harness economic strategies and international economic cooperation – including on industrial, innovation, technology, development, finance and trade policies – to transform the plastics economy, support a just transition to sustainability, and foster new economic opportunities, especially for developing countries.
On the trade front, the plastics economy operates through international supply chains and transportation networks that connect producers and consumers across the life cycle of plastics. Indeed, the value of international trade across the life cycle of plastics exceeds US $1 trillion annually. Recognizing that no country can tackle plastic pollution alone in this context, some 69 countries, led by Ecuador, Morocco, Australia, Barbados, China and Fiji, are working at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to identify opportunities for trade-related cooperation on plastic pollution. The UNEA resolution recognizes that such complementary efforts, including strengthened coordination and cooperation among the array of existing international initiatives, multilateral environmental agreements, and international organisations, will be needed to support and inform the formulation of the new treaty and its implementation.
The opportunity ahead
The vision that governments and stakeholders advanced at UNEA sets a new scene for all conversations about plastics and plastic pollution. It should provide a vital spur for top-level UN leadership and system-wide cooperation among international organisations to champion overarching strategic direction, goals and priorities, galvanise political momentum and inspire action on the ground. Working together, they can share expertise on what kinds of action are necessary and possible, and build an open repository of critical scientific evidence and economic data.
Meanwhile, the exciting work ahead through five rounds of negotiations over the next two years should not slow the urgent task of moving forward on the suite of actions that governments, businesses, researchers, NGOs, waste pickers, and consumers can and should take now to tackle plastic pollution. At the national level, governments will need to pursue an integrated full life cycle approach to national action plans on plastic pollution, anchored in stronger coordination among the range of a range of relevant ministries (i.e. environment, fisheries, urban planning, health, industry, development, finance, and trade) and multistakeholder involvement.
Similarly, robust, ongoing and meaningful engagement with the diversity of stakeholders that have done extraordinary work to put plastic pollution on the global agenda will be vital. With their help, we can ensure the environmental credibility, effective implementation and measurable impact of a new international treaty and bolster the accountability of global environmental governance.
Fredric Bauer is an associate senior lecturer in technology and society, specialised on sustainable industry, at Lund University in Sweden. He conducts research on development, diffusion, and governance of low-carbon innovation in energy and industrial systems aiming towards the transformation to a circular and bio-based economy. This includes investigating global networks in the industries, their connection to state interests and the financial sector, how these factors affect the stability and potential for a transition in the industries, as well as how different forms of governance can support and accelerate the transition. His current work is focused on the chemicals and plastics industries.
Carolyn Deere Birkbeck is the Director of the Forum on Trade, Environment and the SDGs, a partnership between the Graduate Institute and UNEP, housed at the Geneva Trade Platform. She is also a Senior Researcher at the Institute’s Global Governance Centre, where she leads a research project on the political economy and regulation of the global plastics economy, supported by the Swiss Network of International Studies. She is an Associate Fellow of the Chatham House and a Senior Research Associate at the University of Oxford’s Global Economic Governance Programme.
Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash