For the First Time, Nations Band Together in a Move Toward Ending Plastics Pollution

A United Nations resolution embraces a broad definition of the problem that encompasses the life-cycle of plastics, from production to disposal.

An Indian boy walks through plastic waste on Juhu beach in Mumbai on June 2, 2018. Credit: Punit Paranjpe/AFP via Getty Images
An Indian boy walks through plastic waste on Juhu beach in Mumbai on June 2, 2018. Credit: Punit Paranjpe/AFP via Getty Images

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A United Nations gathering in Kenya on Wednesday set the world on track to forge for the first time a legally binding global agreement to curb plastic pollution.

The language in a resolution adopted, to a standing ovation, by delegates to the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA) gave environmental advocates much of what they were looking for: a broad definition of the problem to include pollution across the plastics life-cycle, from production to design to disposal.

There are still a lot of contentious details to navigate, including financial and compliance issues that are only hinted at in the resolution. And the petrochemical and plastics industries are expected to fight any efforts by governments to slow down plastics production.

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But against the backdrop of what U.N. officials described as a “triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature loss and pollution,” the assembly’s decision marks the beginning of an official process over the next two years to negotiate a treaty aimed at ending global plastics waste. It establishes a formal negotiating committee that will begin meeting later this year, focused on plastics pollution in marine and other environments, including the tiny bits of plastics debris known as microplastics.

“We are making history today and you should all be proud,” Espen Barth Eide, the assembly’s president and Norway’s Minister for Climate and the Environment, said after declaring the adoption of the resolution without any dissent.

Moments later, Monica P. Medina of the State Department, the U.S. representative at the assembly, fought back tears as she spoke to the gathered delegates.

“It’s the beginning of the end of the scourge of plastics pollution on the planet,” Medina said. “We will look back on this as a day for our children and grandchildren.”

Plastic pollution has found its way to the highest mountains and deepest parts of the ocean, into the bellies of marine mammals and the placenta of new mothers. 

U.N. officials noted that exposure to plastics can harm human health, potentially affecting fertility, as well as hormonal, metabolic and neurological functioning. By 2050, greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production, use and disposal of plastics could account for 15 percent of emissions allowed under the Paris climate agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Some 11 million metric tons of plastic waste flow annually into oceans, an amount that may triple in less than two decades, according to a widely-cited report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit public charity with a program aimed at stopping plastic pollution in the ocean.

Giving a nod to language embraced by the petrochemical and plastics industries, the resolution also promoted what’s called a “circular economy.”

People talk about the circular economy in different ways. When the chemical industry uses the term, it focuses on repeatedly reusing or recycling plastic materials to eliminate waste, including what the industry calls “advanced” or “chemical” recycling, where plastics are broken down by chemicals or heat to become feedstock for other products.   

The U.N., using the term more broadly, includes reducing plastic production and plastic use and substituting plastic with paper and compostable materials. A shift to this type of circular economy could reduce the volume of plastics entering the oceans by over 80 percent by 2040, while cutting virgin plastic production by 55 percent over the same time period, according to the U.N. 

The American Chemistry Council, which has played a leading role in promoting the petrochemical and plastics industries’ views on a global plastics treaty, declined to make an immediate statement of its own on the outcome of the meeting.

However, the council, a lobbying organization, referred to a statement released by the International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA), of which it is a member. 

“ICCA is pleased with the outcome and fully supports a legally binding agreement on plastic pollution,” the statement read. “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.”

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In all, representatives of 175 nations endorsed the resolution, the formal title of which is, “End plastic pollution: Towards an international legally binding instrument.” Several delegates said the accomplishment shows what can be achieved when nations work together.

“The world has come together to act against plastic pollution, a serious threat to our planet,” said Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya, Rwanda’s minister of environment, whose government’s draft resolution, proposed with Peru, contributed to the final resolution. “International partnerships will be crucial in tackling a problem that affects all of us, and the progress made at UNEA reflects this spirit of collaboration.”

Wednesday’s resolution was years in the making. Environmental organizations that have been advocating for a plastics treaty praised the U.N. body’s action but cautioned that their fight is far from over.

“We have two years to negotiate an entirely new treaty,” said Jane Patton, the Louisiana-based campaign manager for the Center for International Environmental Law, “ … and a powerful plastics and petrochemical lobby will fight it all the way.” 

She added, “We urge countries to stand firm in their commitments reflected in this text and ensure this new treaty is strong enough to prevent and eliminate, rather than just reduce plastic pollution.”

Tim Gabriel, a Paris-based lawyer who works for the Environmental Investigation Agency, a non-profit organization based in London and Washington, credited the delegations of Rwanda and Peru, and called them “unwavering champions of ambition” for coming up with a treaty vision that found 60 co-sponsors and inspired the resolution that was eventually adopted.

“But no victory laps yet,” Gabriel said, adding, “Our work has only just begun.”