Ministers push for tougher treaty on plastics

A grey heron stands between dumped plastic bottles and barrels on the bank of the Potpecko Lake near Priboj, Serbia, 5 January, 2021. States will be negotiating next year a new treaty to curb plastic pollution. (Credit: Keystone/AP Photo/Dragan Karadarevic)

Negotiations for a new agreement on plastics are expected to kick off in February at the next UN Environment Assembly.

Ministers met in Geneva this week to discuss penning a global treaty to tackle the plastic crisis, an idea that dozens of countries have gradually come out in favour of.

Pushing for a tougher text, Peru and Rwanda presented a draft resolution calling for the agreement to be legally binding.

The text, backed by the EU, Switzerland, Norway, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guinea, Senegal and the Philippines, calls for the creation of a committee tasked with negotiating the treaty.

The draft resolution will be discussed, and eventually voted on, in February at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, where the world’s environmental ministers will meet to discuss global environmental challenges.

“We have a formal document on the table now to start this process and I'm absolutely convinced that this will be successful at next UNEA 5,” state secretary for the German ministry of environment, nature conservation and nuclear safety, Jochen Flasbarth, said at a press briefing, calling the meeting a success.

Plastics have permeated all sectors of the world’s economy. Over 400 million tonnes of plastics are produced every year and more than 90 per cent of that ends up in the ocean, in a landfill or is incinerated, with dire consequences for ecosystems and for human health.

An international agreement could introduce measures to eliminate or at least minimise such impacts by, for instance, improving recycling standards, phasing out particularly toxic chemicals, supporting the development of alternatives and reducing the production of virgin plastics.

“Today 15 countries stepped up to turn the tide on plastic pollution endorsing a new UN treaty on plastic pollution, bringing the total number of supportive governments to 119. This could finally start to stem the flow of destruction that plastic pollution is having on the environment and people,” Eirik Lindebjerg, global plastic policy manager at World Wide Fund for Nature, said in a statement.

However, getting other countries on board for a tougher instrument that would entail actual legal consequences for not complying with it will need some legwork. In a ministerial statement, issued at the end of the meeting, countries backed a global plastics agreement but remained silent on the legally binding part.

“At this stage, where you are looking to get as many countries as possible to support [the proposal] so that you are able to go over the hump at UNEA 5, you need to soften [the] language,” Oliver Boachie, special advisor to the minister of the environment, science, technology and innovation in Ghana, said at the press conference.

But as support for a treaty grows, hesitant countries might still come around. “I heard countries – without naming them today – who [said] during the last meeting that a legally binding instrument is not imaginable for them. And today I heard them saying they are ready to consider a [treaty of] legally binding nature,” added Flasbarth.

"The publication of the resolution, as well as the content, is a big step in the right direction,” Andrés del Castillo, senior attorney for the Center for International Environmental Law in Geneva, told Geneva Solutions.

“We hope that those countries who have already spoken up for a legally binding agreement can co-sponsor the resolution.”

It’s too early to tell what the treaty will look like and negotiating it could take years. The goal is likely to be to eliminate plastic waste at some point. “Are we going to ban the use of plastics at any time in our lives? Definitely not. But we are looking at ways of creating zero waste,” Boachie told reporters.

Environmental groups have been pushing for the treaty to broaden its scope beyond microplastics and other issues downstream. They were pleased to see that the ministerial statement made reference to plastic being a hazard at all stages of its life cycle, starting from its production.

“The frame needs to be the crisis on plastics in general and not just a question of plastic pollution,” del Castillo noted.

The ministerial statement reads: “Owing to the nature of global supply and value chains, trade in plastic waste and the flow of plastic in the ocean, the challenge of plastic pollution and marine litter is transboundary and global in scope. Current approaches, which are limited geographically and consider only parts of the life cycle of plastics, have proven insufficient.”