Plastic

UNEP issues first draft of global treaty to cut plastic pollution

What’s happening? The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has published its first draft of a global treaty to end plastic pollution by 2040. It suggests that nations look to prevent, reduce and eliminate plastic pollution at all stages of its lifecycle. The draft stipulates that plastics that are hardest to recycle and those containing harmful chemicals should be phased out at a faster rate, while a ban has been suggested for the highest-risk plastics, including short-lived plastics and single-use plastics. Additionally, it requires nations to develop and implement a national plan for their contribution to the treaty and progress should be regularly reported. (edie)

Why does this matter? Although the treaty targets pollution, it would also deliver benefits for the climate as plastics are a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, plastics generated 1.8 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2019, representing 3.4% of global emissions, with 90% resulting from their production and conversion from fossil fuels. The OECD projects that emissions from the plastics life cycle could rise to more than 4.3 million tonnes of GHG emissions by 2060. Additionally, airborne microplastics have been found in remote regions such as the Arctic, where they may contribute to global heating by absorbing light and reducing the reflectivity of snow. Microplastics can also interfere with the ocean’s natural ability to sequester carbon.

Lengthy negotiations – Broad terms of the treaty were agreed upon in 2022, and discussions took place in Paris earlier this year. UNEP aims to complete negotiations by the end of 2024, with the next round of talks set to commence in Nairobi on 13 November. A final treaty with legally binding targets will then be drawn up. Although the current draft does not propose time-bound numerical targets, it is expected that future drafts will set these out, potentially with different goals for different nations based on current levels of pollution and products and economic differences.

Equitable treatment – The treaty calls for national plans to ensure a just transition that is inclusive for affected populations, particularly women, children and young people. This may include developing policies and conditions that improve income, opportunities and livelihoods for impacted communities, incentivising the creation of jobs and skills growth across the plastics value chain and improving working conditions for waste management workers. It also proposes that a portion of fees collected via extended producer responsibility schemes be used to support these activities.

Human and environmental health – The treaty also states that national plans should include phase-out plans and plans to protect human health and the environment, including the marine environment and financing to support these activities. Plans should cover primary plastic polymers, chemicals and polymers of concern, problematic and avoidable plastic products, updated product design and performance, use of recycled plastic contents, extended producer responsibility, emissions and releases of plastics through their lifecycle, waste management, fishing gear and existing plastic pollution.

Reception – Campaigners have welcomed certain aspects of the draft, with environmental charity City to Sea’s policy manager, Steve Hynd, applauding the inclusion of reuse targets as a “potential game changer” for tackling plastic pollution. Co-founder of A Plastic Planet and Plastic Health Council, Sian Sutherland, was also impressed by the reuse proposals saying that she was “heartened to see that the UN has recognised that to embrace a new age of reuse is to cut the head off the toxic single-use snake”.  Meanwhile, Magnus Lovold, a specialist in international treaties at the Norwegian Academy of International Law, claimed the draft is an “extremely solid basis” for the coming negotiations. However, he warned that “The petrochemical industry will no doubt try to make the draft weaker, less specific, less binding”, adding that he felt this would be unsuccessful.

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