In her twice-monthly column, Angeli Mehta assesses the ‘historic’ agreement at the U.N. to deliver a legally binding treaty by 2024 that will create a circular economy in plastics

In a week when war raged on in Ukraine and climate scientists delivered their starkest warning yet that time is running out to avert catastrophic climate change, more than 190 governments agreed to negotiate an ambitious treaty to tackle the third planetary crisis: plastics pollution.

On what was billed as a “historic day”, the United Nations Environment Assembly resolved to work on a legally binding treaty by 2024 to address every step of the plastics value chain and create a circular economy in plastics. 

Espen Barth Eide, Norway’s Minister for Climate and the Environment, who steered the discussions, suggested that the conflict in Ukraine may have helped galvanise action. “We really need to demonstrate that … multilateralism is meaningful, that we can actually use our national sovereignties to work together for the greater good,” he said.

We do not have much more time. The work starts now

At the assembly, the world’s highest level decision-making body on the environment, government negotiators also agreed to set up a science policy panel to advise on chemical pollution and waste (modelled on the IPCC), and passed wide-ranging resolutions covering everything from biodiversity and health to the extraction of minerals and metals and the management of nitrogen.  

But the sense of urgency to tackle plastic waste was palpable. With just eight years remaining to achieve the U.N. sustainable development goals (SDGs), and 28 years to reach net zero, “we do not have much more time. The work starts now,” said Eide. 

Without action, the annual flow of plastics into our oceans is set to almost triple to 29 million tonnes a year by 2040, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. The researchers conclude that government and industry action so far is likely to stem the flow by just 7% compared with business as usual. Yet those same actors have the solutions to cut the flow of plastics by 80%, the researchers said.

Norway's Espen Barth Eide (right) and UNEP's Inger Andersen at the U.N. Environment Assembly in February 2022. (Credit: Monicah Mwangi/Reuters)

While groups representing the petrochemicals industry reportedly lobbied to narrow the scope of the U.N. resolution, a group of almost 100 consumer goods companies, plastics processors and investors had called on member states to take tough action to keep plastics in the economy and out of the environment. 

In the end, the unopposed resolution “recognises plastics are trans-boundary in nature; it will take the full lifecycle approach, there will be international cooperation, including finance and means of implementation; there will be dimensions of access to technology; we will deal with scientific and technical cooperation,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP). 

While the “hows” are addressed, she urged countries not to wait for 2024, but to get on and enact legislation.

According to The Changing Markets Foundation, more than 40 countries, including Ecuador, have brought in deposit-return schemes for plastic bottles, which have been highly effective in reducing littering, while 34 countries on the African continent have banned single-use plastics. “Bravo to them, I encourage other countries to do similarly,” said Andersen.

While over 60 countries have bans or levies on packaging, no policies target the production of virgin plastics

But how fast will nations be prepared to move? The pandemic is being blamed for a second delay to the introduction of a deposit return scheme in Scotland, which is now expected to start in August 2023.

Meanwhile, it’s been four years since a deposit-return scheme was promised for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which is not now expected to be in place until late 2024. And there’s still no outcome on consultations last year on extended producer responsibility that would make manufacturers responsible for the full costs of recycling the materials they put on the market.

Some mention here of EU plastics strategy in circular economy action plan?

A plastic bottle deposit machine in a metro station in Rome, Italy. (Credit: Remo Casilli/Reuters)

In North America, signatories to the U.S. Plastics Pact, led by The Recycling Partnership and World Wildlife Fund, have a series of targets, including ensuring 100% of plastics packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. Signatories include companies producing a third of plastic packaging by weight in the United States.  The pact has identified 11 materials for which the 2025 target date won’t be achievable, and called for them to be phased out instead. 

And while over 60 countries have introduced bans or levies on plastic packaging, there are no policies that directly target the production of virgin plastics or their raw materials.

Many more thorny issues must be resolved before a global plastics treaty is in place: the precise goals, their measurement and the speed and means of implementation; the differing capacities of nations and financing. 

The world does not lack the resources required... what we lack in most instances is the political will 

Andersen said accountability and transparency will also be key, but she pointed to the success of the Minemata convention to phase out mercury. While complex, “we worked with (the) private sector, we worked with (regulators) and we had a global framework that was legally binding in some measure.”

Damptey Bediako Asare, Ghana’s High Commissioner to Kenya, told the assembly: “The world does not lack the resources required to address the challenges that we face as a global community” but as slow progress in implementing the Paris Agreement and SDGs show, “what we lack in most instances is the political will and demonstrable commitment” to implement those decisions. 

Can the resolve shown last week now be harnessed to do just that?

Main picture credit: Eloisa Lopez/Reuters
U.N. Environment Assembly  IPCC  plastic pollution  circular plastic  petrochemicals industry  espen barth eide  inger anderson  deposit return schemes  single use plastics  Plastics Pact 

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