Earlier this year, I had a front-row seat at the biggest international effort ever to tackle the scourge of plastic pollution. On March 2, 2022, the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA), meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, agreed on a resolution under the name “End plastic pollution: Toward an internationally legally binding instrument,” which was the first major international step in addressing the plastic pollution emergency.
Through this resolution, the executive director of the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) was tasked with convening a committee to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution that addresses the full lifecycle of plastic, with the ambition of completing the draft of this agreement by the end of 2024.
What has happened since?
In late May and early June 2022, the negotiating persons and interested parties met in Senegal to discuss the rules of procedure of this process and the timeline. The chosen rules, with a few minor adaptations, are the Minamata Rules of Procedure, and the timeline will be five in-person meetings of the intergovernmental negotiating committee (INC) with intersessional negotiating work among them.
The first round of negotiations of the INC will take place November 28-December 2 in Uruguay. This session will be preceded by regional consultations and the Multistakeholder Forum for relevant parties regarding the margins of the in-person meetings of the INC. This forum aims to facilitate the exchange of information and gather perspectives from different interested parties across the plastics life cycle to help inform negotiators and others on ideas, solutions and best practices for the negotiations.
My colleague Courtney Carmichael and I will represent Ocean Conservancy during these negotiating proceedings informing and advising negotiators and interested parties on policy for adoption in this agreement. As an organization committed to protecting the environment, caring for our ocean and fighting climate change, Ocean Conservancy remains committed to helping close the gap among governments, community organizations and the private sector.
What are Ocean Conservancy’s priorities for this agreement?
1. To promote the development and implementation of national action plans that include robust metrics and targets for source reduction as well as waste management, pollution prevention and clean up. Cutting production of single-use plastics is the first and most important step we can take to address the plastic pollution crisis. But it must be coupled with strong plastics collection and recycling, for which there is robust and standardized baselines and transparent national reporting.
2. To elevate the importance of informal sector waste collectors in the process and agreement.
Informal sector waste collectors are on the frontlines of collecting items for recycling in many countries around the world. They collect recyclables to sell for a small profit and are often not part of a formal business, which means they are often left out of policy discussions and implementation. However, recycling in many parts of the world would not happen without them. According to the International Labor Organization, there are 15-20 million waste collectors globally. Incorporating informal sector waste collectors into policies that will provide them with access to resources will help ensure any international agreement to prevent plastic pollution is both successful and just.
3. To advocate for the inclusion of ghost gear in the international agreement.
Ghost gear—abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear—is the most harmful form of marine debris and is often composed of durable plastic. Ghost gear is not explicitly referenced in the resolution approved in Nairobi and is therefore not currently on the agenda of the negotiators, but it should be considered under the broad clause of “marine pollution.” Ghost gear can exist in the environment perpetuating the cycle of ghost fishing for hundreds of years. There is currently no robust global legally binding mechanism in place to prevent, mitigate or remediate abandoned, lost and discarded fishing gear.
4. To advocate for circular economy principles, including better product design and support for recycling, and to ensure chemical recycling technologies that harm communities and do not perpetuate a circular economy are not part of the agreement.
The full life cycle of plastics, including product design, must be addressed, and aimed at keeping plastics in the economy and out of the environment, and reducing virgin plastic production and use. Further, financial support should not go to any technologies that harm surrounding communities through air and water emissions or that worsen our climate crisis.
5. To advocate for adequate financial support and technical capacity to ensure all countries can undertake ambitious strategies.
What do we know about the positions held by different countries?
By the most part, countries are still determining what their specific positions during the negotiations will be, but we are starting to see the emergence of blocks aligned around common themes and objectives, as well as some countries starting to spell out their individual approach for the agreement.
As an example, Norway and Rwanda have led the creation of the “High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution” with more than 20 countries already joining in support. Among others, Canada, United Kingdom, France, Germany and all G7 economies, have shown their support. This broad coalition has three overarching goals:
1. To restrain plastic consumption and production to sustainable levels
2. To enable a circular economy for plastics that protects the environment and human health
3. To achieve environmentally sound management and recycling of plastic waste
The United States appears to be in support of an agreement similar to the Paris Agreement 2015 that would not need the advice and consent of the Senate, as it is not legally binding but voluntary in nature. This position would support the development of voluntary national action plans as the primary mechanisms of enforcement, implementation and effectiveness.
Regardless of the specific positions of some countries, Ocean Conservancy is working with many of them to find common solutions to a problem that knows no barriers and is serving as a reliable partner to advance a process that is ambitions and consensus driven.
We must keep in mind that plastics are energy and emissions intensive and drive fossil-fuel demand and greenhouse-gas emissions. Therefore, with 11 million metric tons of plastics entering our ocean every year—the equivalent to approximately 262 million barrels—an ambitious and well-crafted plastics agreement is necessary to reach global climate goals and commitments.
This is a historical opportunity to tackle plastic pollution once and for all. Ocean Conservancy is thrilled to work with countries around the globe to craft an agreement that will create a healthier future for our ocean. There is no time to waste to tackle the ocean plastics crisis. Our planet needs it, our children need it and our ocean needs it.
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