UN adopts mandate for binding treaty to end plastic pollution

Sunday March 06 2022

A 30-foot monument themed 'Turn off the plastics tap' made by Canadian activist and artist, Benjamin von Wong, using plastic waste retrieved from Nairobi's Kibra slum stands outside the venue of the 5th United Nations Environment Assembly at the UN Environment Programme (Unep) headquarters in Nairobi on February 22, 2022. PHOTO | AFP


Of the 400 million tonnes of plastics produced per year in a global industry valued at $522.6 billion, a paltry 10 percent make it for recycling of any form

In what has been described as a historic moment and the world’s turning point on plastics, the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2) has adopted the mandate for a new legally binding treaty on plastic pollution.

The aim of the resolution is to decrease the usage of plastic and increase recycling for a cleaner, healthier environment.

This presents an opportunity for world governments to light the way for a legally binding treaty to determine the plastics lifecycle from production to distribution to disposal.

The proposition for a global treaty on eliminating plastic pollution was tabled by Rwanda and Peru and took two weeks of negotiations in Nairobi to come to fruition.

The Executive Director UN Environment Programme (Unep), Inger Andersen, termed the agreement as the most important international environmental deal since the Paris accord.


“This is an insurance policy for this generation and future ones, so they may live with plastic and not be doomed by it” said Ms Andersen.

UN member states met at Unep Headquarters in Nairobi last week — February 28 to March 4 — where Heads of State, Ministers of environment and other representatives from 175 nations endorsed the landmark agreement that will address interventions through the full lifecycle of plastic from source to sea.

The plastics global industry is valued at $522.6 billion and yet, only 10 percent of all the plastics ever produced has been recycled.

Switzerland said it would support the process towards a legally binding instrument through a financial contribution of $325,000.

Infiltrated food chains

This will be the first legal document agreed internationally that charts a roadmap to tackle plastic pollution, a pervasive environmental menace that UNEA’s outgoing President, Norwegian Minister of Climate and Environment, Espen Barth Eide, said had “infiltrated food chains and human blood streams”.

“Today we made history. Plastic pollution has grown into an epidemic. With today’s resolution, we are officially on track for a cure. Now we can design a roadmap to take the leakage of plastic into nature away. And this shows that multilateralism works,” said Mr Eide.

On a day of great emotion, Rwanda’s Minister of Environment, Dr Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya said, “…this spirit of cooperation that we’ve witnessed here in UNEA that will lead us to success in developing a treaty to end plastic pollution. But the real work begins. That is why a like-minded group of nations including Kenya, has formed a high-ambition coalition to end plastic pollution. The coalition will walk with the international negotiating committee and advocate for urgent action.”

“We will work with the INC and are optimistic about the opportunity to create a legally binding treaty as a framework for national ambition-setting, monitoring, investment, and knowledge transfer to end plastic pollution.”

In an emotional end to the resumed the fifth session of the UNEA in Nairobi, the President’s gavel came down on the historic resolution to bring an end to plastic pollution and forge an international legally binding agreement by 2024.

Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs Assistant Secretary, Monica Medina wiped away tears when she spoke in support of the resolution.

In total, the UNEA concluded with two declarations, 14 resolutions and one decision on a number of critical issues to curb pollution and to protect and restore nature worldwide.

The resolution establishes an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC), which will begin work to complete an international legally binding agreement to end plastic pollution by the end of 2024. Technical experts worked on the draft proposal for the past week.

Signing up

A legally binding instrument would reflect how to address the full lifecycle of plastics, from production to 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.

At a press conference during the opening of the conference, Ms Andersen said over 80 companies including plastic manufacturers had signed up for the legally binding global agreement.

She noted that this was important for plastic manufacturers because their consumers had begun to take notice of the crisis that had stemmed from the plastic pollution across the world and were beginning to demand action.

“Let it be clear that the INC’s mandate does not grant any stakeholder a two-year pause. In parallel to negotiations over an international binding agreement, Unep will work with willing governments and businesses across the value chain to shift away from single-use plastics, as well as to mobilise private finance and remove barriers to investments in research and in a new circular economy,” Andersen added.