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An international treaty to fight plastic pollution?

While only 9% of plastic waste is recycled, the United Nations Environment Assembly will discuss a framework to tackle plastic pollution. But if expectations are high, plastic pollution will be far from solved. A legally binding treaty will most likely not come before 2024.

Plastic pollution

The United Nations Environment Assembly will meet from February 28 to March 2 in Kenya’s capital Nairobi for what is said to be a milestone event in the fight against plastic pollution. Expectations with the summit are high, but plastic pollution will be far from solved.

Such event is the opportunity for member States to share best practices on sustainability. But the Assembly is also expected to propose an international framework to tackle the growing problem of plastic waste in the world’s oceans, rivers and landscape.

For the first time in history, we are seeing unprecedented global momentum to tackle the plague of plastic pollution, said U.N. Environment Program Executive Director Inger Andersen.

Two major proposals have emerged during years of international discussions about ways to reduce single use plastic.

The first one calls for a comprehensive approach to plastic pollution with the extraction of raw materials, the production of plastic, its use, its disposal and deterioration in micro plastics.

It was proposed by Peru and Rwanda and co-sponsored by Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guinea, Kenya, Madagascar, Norway, the Philippines, Senegal, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Uganda and the European Union.

Another proposal looks for an international agreement on the whole plastic lifecycle but limits its scope on marine plastic pollution rather than all environments.

Waste management is a core issue with plastics and marine environment is too often its end journey. According to the World Wide Fund For Nature, Ocean plastic pollution will quadruple by 2050 if nothing changes.

Plastic waste more than doubled in 20 years

Moreover, only 9% of all plastics used worldwide is recycled according to the OECD. The Paris-based organization calculated that 460 million tonnes of plastic were used in 2019, almost twice as much as in 2000. And plastics waste more than doubled during that period.

Almost half of plastic ends up in sanitary landfills and another 19 percent is incinerated. And the remaining 22% is disposed of in uncontrolled dumpsites, burned in open pits or leaked into the environment.

While the OECD called for a more circular plastic lifecycle, it also considered that policies must reduce overall consumption.

But for Erastus Ooko, the plastics engagement lead for Greenpeace Africa, the support of 140 countries for negotiations about a framework is not enough: “These countries should be calling for a legally binding treaty that will match the scale and depth of the plastics crisis”.

Expectations for such Assembly is that it will lead to a legally binding agreement to tackle plastic pollution.

It could be a target on the reduction of plastics production, a ban of single-use plastic, a goal regarding recycling plastic or managing waste, or the use of biodegradable packaging.

People also seem eager to a cross-national agreement. In a poll from Ipsos for the WWF, 88% of respondents from 28 countries stressed the importance of an international treaty to fight plastic pollution. And companies like PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble and Unilever also support a legally binding agreement.

If such a plastics treaty is endorsed by the U.N. Environment Assembly, Andersen said it “would be the most significant global; environmental governance decision since the Paris (Climate) Agreement in 2015″.

But the goal of this fifth UN environment assembly is for now to agree on a blueprint and form an intergovernmental negotiating committee. And then, the committee would negotiate on a final treaty to be signed. It may take several years, though.

Both proposals envision the negotiating committee to complete the legally-binding plastic treaty by 2024. And similar to other treaties, it will give years for countries to adjust and implement changes.

Update March 2: The U.N. panel has agreed to negotiate on the production of a legally binding global treaty by 2024 for the full lifecycle of plastics, including production, design and disposal.

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