Marine pollution & plastic waste from the response to Covid-19 top the agenda
The UNEP led ‘UNEA 5’ was recently hosted in Nairobi from the 28th of February to the 2nd of March 2022, attended by 3400 representatives from 175 nations; UNEA 5 attempted to address the theme of “Strengthening Actions for Nature to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.”[i] The meeting sought to address areas including nature-based climate solutions, sustainable food systems, green jobs and poverty, as well as addressing the mounting environmental concerns around plastic.
Formal discussion of the UN resolutions on plastic was discussed on the 2nd of March 2022 at the closing plenary of the assembly. Highlighting the seriousness of plastic waste, in October 2021, the UN environment program (UNEP) reported that current yearly marine plastic pollution is 11 million tons and projected that it could rise to 37 million metric tons by 2040.[ii] Inger Andersen, the executive director of the UNEP, expressed major concern for the toxic effects of plastic breakdown products (e.g. microplastics and chemical additives) on human and animal ecosystems.[iii]
Source: UN News
A further issue has stemmed from Covid-19. The pandemic has created a surge in plastic waste, with it being projected that over 140 million COVID-19 test kits have been shipped to UN member states since the pandemic began; these kits could account for 2600 tonnes of mainly plastic waste; furthermore, the online journal PNAS has suggested that total pandemic-associated plastic waste from PPE was 25,900 tonnes.[iv] The UN suggests that 30% of medical facilities cannot handle this extra waste, with this number rising to 60% in developing nations.[v] The world health organisation’s global analysis of healthcare waste in the context of COVID-19 recommended the following:
- eco-friendly packaging and shipping.
- purchasing safe and reusable PPE made of recyclable or biodegradable materials.
- investment in non-burn waste treatment technologies.
- investments in the recycling sector to ensure materials like plastics can have a second life.[vi]
Source: The Guardian
The UNEP’s new plan for plastics
Addressing plans for dealing with plastic pollution, Inger Andersen, executive director of the UNEP, had this to say about what she expected ahead of the discussions:
“Over the last week, we have seen tremendous progress on negotiations towards an internationally legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution. I have complete faith that once endorsed by the Assembly, we will have something truly historic on our hands.”
“Ambitious action to beat plastic pollution should track the lifespan of plastic products – from source to sea – should be legally binding, accompanied by support to developing countries, backed by financing mechanisms, tracked by strong monitoring mechanisms, and incentivising all stakeholders – including the private sector.”[vii]
Two proposals were submitted for discussion at UNEA 5. The first, from Rwanda & Peru, called for “concrete steps towards international cooperation and coordination on the plastic pollution issue” and aimed to combat the “reckless disposal” of plastics at “all stages of the plastic life cycle”. A second proposal from Japan sought to address marine plastic pollution with legally binding commitments from UN member states but promised it would be “taking into account the respective national circumstances”.[viii]
By the close of the UNEA 5, the UNEP resolved to create an intergovernmental committee to negotiate a new legally binding treaty on plastic reduction by 2024.[ix] “The agreement will reflect ‘diverse alternatives’ to address the full lifecycle of plastics, the design of reusable and recyclable materials, and the need for more international collaboration in support of technology, capacity building, and scientific cooperation.”[x]
“Will it go far enough?”
The response from environmental groups has been largely positive, with the hope that there is momentum growing towards addressing plastic usage and subsequent waste. Sian Sutherland, A Plastic Planet co-founder, was quoted as saying: "Last year A Plastic Planet called for a global treaty to tackle plastic pollution, and the world's leaders have listened. We applaud the UNEA for seeing through the fossil fuel lobbying, acknowledging that we must consider the impact of plastic through its entire lifecycle, its impact on health, and crucially, making this treaty legally binding. These three points are fundamentally key to the treaty being effective.”[xi]
However, Gaia, a global network with the mission statement “working towards a just and waste-free world without incineration”, has made clear its reservations with the question, “Will this be a watershed moment or an invitation for corporate greenwashing? Will it go far enough?”. More specifically, Gaia’s concerns relate to what they call “Waste colonialism”, where top plastic waste exporters (Australia, US, UK, Germany & Japan) place the burden of their own plastic waste on importing nations, typically in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and South and Southeast Asia.[xii] Commenting on the stakes at play with a UN plastic treaty, Gaia points out that by 2050, plastic related emissions from incineration etc., will account for more than a 3rd of the global carbon budget for a 1.5℃ heating target. As such, Gaia says:
“A plastics treaty must impose legally-binding plastic reduction targets.”[xiii]