Global agreement on plastic pollution

Warren Schmidt

Plastic is a serious global environmental concern. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP):

  • Plastic production has soared from two million tonnes in 1950 to 348 million tonnes in 2017, with a global industry valued at US$522.6 billion. Plastic production is expected to double in capacity by 2040.
  • Plastics harm human health and wellbeing in several ways with links to fertility, hormonal, metabolic and neurological activity.
  • Open burning of plastic contributes to air pollution.
  • An estimated 11 million tonnes of plastic waste flows into our oceans annually and more than 800 marine and coastal species are affected by this pollution through ingestion, entanglement and associated dangers.

On the 2nd March 2022, heads of state, ministers of environment and other representatives from 175 nations endorsed an historic resolution at the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) in Nairobi to end plastic pollution and forge an international legally binding agreement by 2024. The resolution addresses the full lifecycle of plastic, including its production, design and disposal.

“A shift to a circular economy can reduce the volume of plastics entering oceans by over 80 percent by 2040; reduce virgin plastic production by 55 percent; save governments US$70 billion by 2040; reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent; and create 700 000 additional jobs – mainly in the global south.”

The resolution, based on three initial draft resolutions from various nations, establishes an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC), which will begin its work in 2022, with the ambition of completing a draft global legally binding agreement by the end of 2024. It is expected to present a legally binding instrument, which would reflect diverse alternatives to address the full lifecycle of plastics, the design of reusable and recyclable products and materials, and the need for enhanced international collaboration to facilitate access to technology, capacity building and scientific and technical cooperation – UNEA-5.

Marine life such as this green turtle are heavily impacted by plastic pollution.

The resolution spurred a wave of celebrations and applause through the convened delegation. Whilst this is certainly a step in the right direction, I remain sceptical about the implementation and enforcement of such legally binding resolutions against the backdrop of socio-economic challenges. Unless we can achieve the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, such as poverty alleviation, good health and well-being, affordable and clean energy and practically all the other goals, achieving such an agreement remains challenging. As I write this from Johannesburg, our air is tainted with the smell of chemical pollutants and burning plastic and rubber, yet we have all the environmental legislation in place to combat this, but zero enforcement or political will for change. Therein lies the real problem of sustainable development.


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