The fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) concluded on Wednesday with the adoption of a resolution to end plastic pollution, by addressing the full life cycle of plastic – from production to disposal. 175 countries unanimously agreed on a United Nations framework that calls for global rules, financing and enforcement mechanisms. Reluctant nations, including India and Japan, sought a far more limited agreement only dealing with ocean plastic pollution. But they acquiesced in the end.
A committee will shortly begin work on drafting the treaty with a goal of finishing by the end of 2024.
Especially beverage companies will be affected by the new treaty as they are “major ocean polluters and are producing billions of plastic bottles every year that end up in the sea essentially forever,” according to Andy Sharpless, CEO of Oceana, the largest international advocacy organization dedicated solely to ocean conservation. Oceania released a report in 2020, finding “that the beverage industry could decrease marine plastic pollution by 4.5 billion to 7.6 billion bottles each year, a 22% decrease, by increasing the market share of soft drinks and water sold in refillable bottles by just 10% (in place of single-use throwaway PET bottles).”
UN deputy secretary-general Amina J. Mohammed, former Nigerian Minister of Environment, said after the agreement: “This is historical. The problem of plastic pollution is too large for one-member state or entity to tackle alone.”
The plastics industry had hoped for a far more limited agreement and it is expected to offer input on the final shape of the treaty. Environmental groups, however, are pleased with the agreement, though caution that much work lies ahead.
All 175 nations that participated in the three-day UNEA meeting in Nairobi, Kenya last week realized the world can’t just recycle and burn its way out of the plastics crisis. Instead, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) lists goals to offer “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.”
“Further noting that plastic pollution, in marine and other environments, can be of a transboundary nature and needs to be tackled, together with its impacts through a full lifecycle approach taking into account national circumstances and capabilities,” the final resolution published on the UNEP said.
Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP, said the decision was the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the 2015 Paris climate accord.
“Having a universally agreed definition of nature-based solutions is important. When countries and companies claim that their actions are supporting nature-based solutions, we can now begin to assess whether this is accurate and what it entails. This is especially true given the just-released report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the need to scale-up adaptation, for which nature-based solutions will be crucial,” Andersen said in a UNEP statement.