It has been called the most important environmental agreement since the 2015 Paris agreement to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.
On Wednesday, 175 countries agreed to create the first-ever global treaty on plastic pollution 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 define legally binding rules which should be finalized by the end of 2024, and address “the full life cycle of plastic from source to sea”.
About 11 million tons of plastic waste ends up in the ocean every year, a figure that could triple in the coming decades. Research has shown that by 2050 there could be more plastic in global waters than fish.
The Independent breaks with the international move is significant.
An “epidemic”, billions of bottles and bags in preparation
Plastic pollution “has become an epidemic”, said Norwegian Climate and Environment Minister Espen Barth Eide, who chaired the meeting in Kenya.
Humans produce around 300 million tonnes of plastic waste per year, equivalent to the weight of every person on the planet. Half of these products are intended for single use.
And while millions of tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean – impacting over 800 marine and coastal species – even more go to landfills. Over the past 70 years, around three-quarters of the approximately 9.2 billion tonnes of plastic produced have been thrown away.
Damage 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 in our food and water systems; in human organs and newborns.
A 2019 study, published in the journal environmental science and technology, found that humans can consume 39,000 to 52,000 microplastic particles each year.
Exposure to plastics can harm human health, reports UNEP, 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 disease and cancer.
Plastics = climate change
A significant climate cost accompanies all this waste of plastic. About 98% of single-use products are made from fossil fuels, the main ingredients of which are naphtha, a substance made from crude oil, and a liquid natural gas, ethane.
Global warming emissions from the production, use and disposal of conventional fossil fuel-based plastics are projected to rise to 19% of the global carbon budget by 2040, reports UNEP.
Approaching the “life cycle”
The UN resolution takes a holistic approach to the plastic problem, looking not only at the end product but also at the raw materials.
It acknowledges that a “wide range” of sustainable alternatives and technologies, as well as international cooperation, will be needed to redesign plastic packaging as well as collection and reprocessing infrastructure.
Plastic that cannot be disposed of should instead be reusable, recyclable or compostable. This shift to the so-called “circular economy” is expected to reduce the plastic dumped in the ocean by more than 80% by 2040 and reduce the production of virgin plastic by half.
The international agreement is expected to save governments $70 billion over the next two decades and reduce emissions by 25%.
The inclusion of the “life cycle” of plastics in the text will not be good news for the big oil and chemical companies that manufacture plastics, and were trying to keep the UN talks focused on the management and the recycling waste, rather than on design and creation.
The agreement also recognizes “the significant contribution” made by workers in informal and cooperative settings to the collection, sorting and recycling of plastics in many countries. UNEP says tackling plastic pollution will create an additional 700,000 jobs, mostly in the Global South.
“A Triumph of Planet Earth”
Against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and growing political polarization, members of the 175 countries that signed the agreement were quick to point out that when it comes to hating plastic pollution, nations talk about one voice.
“In the context of geopolitical turmoil, the United Nations Environment Assembly shows multilateral cooperation at its best,” Norwegian Minister Eide said.
Inger Andersen, UNEP’s executive director, added that it was “a triumph of planet Earth over single-use plastics”.
“This is the most important multilateral environmental agreement since the Paris agreement. It’s an insurance policy for this generation and future generations, so they can live with plastic and not be condemned,” she said.