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Seeking an ambitious global action to curb plastic pollution

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Seeking an ambitious global action to curb plastic pollution

An interview with Ms. Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme.
Africa Renewal
25 February 2022
Déchets plastiques dans une rivière au Timor-Leste
UN Photo/Martine Perret
Plastic bottles and garbage waste from a village in Timor-Leste wash on the shores of a river and then spill into the sea.
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At the 5th session of UN Environment Assembly being held in Nairobi, Kenya, Member States will work towards a legally binding global instrument that will guide actions, from source to sea, that address all sources of pollution along the whole lifecycle - from production through disposal and reduction of the leakage of existing plastic currently in the global ecosystem. Ms. Inger Andersen, the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, explains what this means: 

Ms. Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director
Ms. Inger Andersen

Do you have a specific agenda for what will come up at the session concerning the plastics convention? 

The resumed fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA), to take place in Nairobi, Kenya, is an important opportunity for countries to make progress on addressing the challenge of plastic pollution. Member States will be deliberating on proposals at the resumed fifth session of UNEA with the aim to establish an intergovernmental negotiating committee (INC) to work towards a legally binding global instrument. I am confident that Member States will decide on the path forward that makes a real difference to address plastic pollution. 

What comes next? How long may it take to reach an agreement? 

Member States are set to deliberate this year at the resumed session of UNEA on an international legally binding instrument, commencing its work in 2022 and with the goal of completing by the sixth session of UNEA. 

This would make for a highly ambitious timeframe, reflecting Member States’ understanding of the urgency to make progress on this critical environmental challenge.

How do you expect to handle competing ideas? Specifically, should an agreement cover creation of plastics as well as disposal? Is the agreement likely to cover just ocean pollution, or all plastic pollution? May different types of plastic or ingredients in plastic be banned or treated differently? 

At the end of the day, the scope of a global instrument will be decided by Member States in a multilateral setting. In the spirit of heeding the call from the UN Secretary-General for a networked and inclusive multilateralism,  a strong negotiation process will be one which embraces different points of view and engages with a variety of stakeholders from the get-go. We seek rapid, ambitious and meaningful global action to curb the scourge of plastic pollution and this means incorporating different views to arrive at a framing that allows us to meet a range of economic, social and environment objectives.

The proposals being deliberated by Member States envision actions, from source to sea, that address all sources of pollution along the whole lifecycle - from production through disposal and reduction of the leakage of existing plastic currently in the global ecosystem.   

Member States will need to consider in their negotiations the different types of plastics and additives within them, especially to allow plastics to be recycled safely and to foster a circular plastics economy.

Is an agreement likely to rely on national self-reporting? Or are nations likely to underestimate their contributions to plastic disposal? 

This is an important issue for Member States to deliberate further on. The demonstration of credible, continuous progress will help to secure political support and financing, and ultimately enhance impact over the long term.

Most Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) include provisions on reporting, i.e. Parties agree to provide information on the way they have been implementing the MEA at the national level. Reporting can be a useful tool for Parties to self-assess their compliance with the MEA and reflect on challenges and opportunities for improved implementation. But it is also a useful tool for the Parties collectively to exchange information on measures taken for the implementation of the MEA and the effectiveness of these measures. On the basis of national reports, the Secretariat is called to prepare a synthesis report highlighting the main trends and challenges in implementation, assisting Parties to consider how to enhance the overall effectiveness of the MEA at issue.  

At the same time, many Parties to MEAs have at times expressed concerns over “reporting fatigue” and this is something we do need to seriously keep in mind as we assess the optimum review process for tracking our progress on stemming plastic pollution.

A number of important efforts are underway to monitor and track plastic pollution and marine litter can support and complement national reporting.  This includes, for example,  National Guidance for Plastic Pollution Hotspotting and Shaping Action developed by the IUCN, UNEP and the Life Cycle Initiative; the Minderoo Foundation Plastic Waste Makers Index; Guidelines For The Monitoring And Assessment Of Plastic Litter In The Ocean (developed by Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection); and the Back to Blue Plastics Management Index (Economist Impact and Nippon Foundation).

What type of enforcement mechanisms will be considered? 

Indeed implementation and compliance are central to the success of any MEA. There are many examples to learn from here in the multilateral environmental governance space.

To strengthen commitments under the agreements, some MEAs include provisions for the development of procedures and mechanisms to promote implementation and/or compliance, and/or determine and address non-compliance by Parties. These procedures and mechanisms often involve some form of implementation or compliance committee. For example, the Paris Agreement established a mechanism to facilitate implementation of and promote compliance with the provisions of the Agreement (Article 15). The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal has a ‘verification’ process, according to which any Party which believes another Party is acting or has acted in breach of its obligations under the Convention may inform the Secretariat (Article 19).   

The Minamata Convention on Mercury established an implementation and compliance committee under Article 15 to promote the implementation of and review compliance with, all provisions of the Convention. This was innovative, as addressing the concept of compliance alone has been challenging for many MEAs. 

Mechanisms to review compliance by Parties with an MEA are typical of non-confrontational, non-judicial and consultative nature. The ultimate goal is to assist Parties in their efforts for enhanced implementation of the agreement as a whole.

Whatever the modalities arrived at by countries, it is critical that they create sufficient incentives for multiple stakeholders to benefit from a new global plastics circular economy. This then flips the emphasis – from enforcement to creating an enabling environment where it is in everyone’s interests to implement the agreement.  If the agreement creates the right enabling environment for catalyzing a new plastics economy, then we will have a process that works for the economy and meets environment and social objectives in tandem.

Are you hearing from industries in opposition to parts of the problem? 

The scope of industry and private sector entities involved in this topic are vast, with wide business interests. While positions are varied, a general recognition is growing for the need for global, collective actions. Across the board, industries contributing to plastic pollution need to do better, and we are seeing evidence that this is happening – however, it is not happening fast enough to reverse or halt the plastics pollution crisis

Under the Ellen Macarthur Foundation/UNEP Global Commitments for Plastics, a large number of businesses and countries are supportive of a global agreement on plastic pollution, recognising voluntary initiatives alone will not be enough. 

In terms of the chemicals and plastic sector, the International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA) and the World Plastics Council (WPC) recognize the need for global action to prevent leakage of plastic into the environment and achieve universal access to waste collection. 

manifesto signed by many of the world’s leading companies in support of a UN treaty on plastic pollution has also been published.

UNEP has been having discussions with different stakeholders to understand their priorities, challenges, and what would be needed to foster a new plastics circular economy that works for industry, for the economy and meets environmental and social objectives.

What kind of financing will be considered to provide technical guidance and enforcement? 

Typically, grant financing tends to enable technical assistance work but what will be key is to scale up the innovations needed to help companies make the transition to a circular economy for plastics. Concessional financing in the form of debt, equity or guarantee financing could help catalyze the shift for businesses. Other mechanisms such as Extended Producer Responsibility could also be interesting vehicles to innovate with.

However, it is not really possible to determine what the implementation of this potential agreement might cost until the details of the commitments have been decided.   

Is the COVID pandemic slowing progress toward reaching an agreement? 

Despite the COVID pandemic, Member States are pushing for the negotiation of a global instrument as witnessed to date in the draft resolutions. Certainly, the pandemic has not made this easy, but we are seeing multilateralism make some strides in a virtual environment.

Dialogues on this topic have continued to take place throughout 2021, including the Ministerial Conference on Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution. Groups of Friends led by Member States in Nairobi and New York are also helping to advance the issue. While we do not yet know what the final result will be, countries and other stakeholders have remained very engaged. 

What is the latest count in terms of the number of nations showing interest in a global agreement? 

It is clear that there is huge global interest in addressing the problem of plastic pollution through multilateral cooperation. Since September 2021, according to the WWF Global Plastic Navigator, 154 countries have expressed an interest in negotiating a new global agreement on marine plastic pollution. 

Also see endorsements to the Ministerial Statemen, an outcome of the Ministerial Conference held by Ghana, Germany, Ecuador and Vietnam in September 2021.

Given the state of the oceans, can we wait much longer to get an agreement?  

We currently dump 11 million metric tons of plastic into the ocean each year and this figure is projected to double by 2030 and nearly triple by 2040. In 2018 alone, impacts on tourism, fisheries, and aquaculture together with other costs such as those of clean-ups, were estimated to be at least US$6-19 billion globally.  

The different industries across the plastic value chain are facing a shifting dynamic. We are seeing that shareholders of companies and consumers are increasingly paying attention to the pollution challenges that may be arising from their investments and their purchasing decisions. 

Even as we continue to flesh out a global agreement, it is clear that we cannot put the brakes on action to address plastic pollution. This is such a big challenge, we need to come at it, through different tracks, all converging on the same road – towards altering our relationship with plastics, therefore benefitting the natural world, in particular, our oceans and water bodies, and human health.

Finally, do you have any pictures, charts or graphs we might use that can illustrate the story?  

You may check: 

Drowning in Plastics – Marine Litter and Plastic Waste Vital Graphics

From Pollution to Solution 

Originally shared with Mongabay for this article: As world drowns in plastic waste, U.N. to hammer out global treaty

Health Campaign