World leaders will come together online and in Nairobi, Kenya, next week, in what is described as a “critical moment” in progress towards the first ever global treaty to combat plastic waste. Inger Andersen, director of the UN Environment Programme, said an agreement at the UN environment assembly could be the most important multilateral pact since the Paris climate accord in 2015.
Public disgust and impatience over the growing mountain of plastic waste has led to an unprecedented “degree of focus” that could see member states agreeing a blueprint for a legally binding treaty to control plastics “from source to sea”, she said.
“Public impatience is something that is very powerful,” Andersen told the Guardian. “The public has had enough. We are all dependent on plastic, but they obviously want to see some resolution of this issue.”
Earlier this month, the US, which generates more plastic waste per person than any other country in the world, joined with France in calling for a global agreement that recognises “the importance of curbing [plastic waste] at its source.”
A key goal of the fifth UN environment assembly, from 28 February to 2 March, is to thrash out broad terms for a global agreement on plastic pollution and to form an intergovernmental negotiating committee (INC) to broker a final deal. If member states can agree on a framework, the INC would then negotiate a final treaty to be signed.
Only 9% of plastic waste is recycled. It is difficult to recycle, slow to decay, expensive and polluting to burn, and breaks down into tiny particles that enter the food chain and cause harm to animals. These microplastics are ubiquitous, from the deep seafloor to the Arctic ice pack.
Addressing delegates on Wednesday, ahead of the summit, Andersen said: “The world is watching with anxiety but also with hope – because for the first time in history, we are seeing unprecedented global momentum to tackle the plague of plastic pollution.”
“From the 1950s to today, we have produced around 9bn tonnes, and 7bn tonnes of that is waste,” said Andersen. “That waste doesn’t disappear. We may feel good when we put it into the recycling bin, but it doesn’t all get recycled … 76% ends up in landfills and then the rest is incinerated, which causes toxic emissions as well as carbon dioxide.”
If the UN does not agree on a treaty to curb production and use of plastic, ocean plastic pollution could quadruple by 2050 and there will be widespread ecological damage, according to a WWF report earlier this month.
Reducing use of plastic, made from oil and gas, has implications for the climate as well as pollution levels, Andersen said.
“If we manage to land it [an agreement], it will be the biggest thing we have done as a global community in a new multilateral environment agreement. We haven’t dealt with this issue with this degree of focus before. It is a very significant moment, and it is absolutely critical.”
This week, negotiators in Nairobi are looking at two main resolutions, one from Rwanda and Peru, which addresses the full lifecycle of plastics and has the backing of more than 70 countries, including 27 from the EU. The other, from Japan, backed by Cambodia, Palau and Sri Lanka, prioritises waste management interventions and limits its scope to marine litter.
More than 300 scientists and research organisations are calling on all UN member states to accept nothing less than the key elements of the stronger Rwanda-Peru resolution. And 90 business leaders, including fast-moving consumer goods companies, key producers of plastic waste, have also called for an agreement.
Andersen’s wishlist for the agreement is that it covers the whole lifecycle of plastic, not just marine litter, includes monitoring and targets, and has a financial element, to help developing countries less able to recycle.
“What’s interesting is that 90 CEOs have signed up, calling for a legally binding agreement. That includes PepsiCo and Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble and Unilever. And then you ask, ‘Well, why?’ Because [of] shareholders and consumers, that’s where the lever is. There are many, many more who want to see that shift.”