The much-anticipated talks on a potential ‘Plastic pact’ at UNEA 5 has produced a treaty on plastic waste which has been described as ‘historic’. We covered the run up to the talks in detail over previous weeks. There were reports late in the day that that manufacturers had been lobbying to weaken the treaty proposal, as Reuters put it, a ‘U.N. pact may restrict plastic production. Big Oil aims to stop it’.

Now, world leaders, environment ministers and other representatives from 173 countries have agreed to develop a legally binding treaty on plastics, in what many described a truly historic moment, as the Guardian reports.

The resolution, agreed at the UN environment assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, calls for a treaty covering the “full lifecycle” of plastics from production to disposal, to be negotiated over the next two years. It has been described by the head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) as the most important multilateral environmental deal since the Paris climate accord in 2015.

UN nations agreed it should cover the production and design of plastic, not just waste. The resolution established an intergovernmental negotiating committee, tasked with drafting and ratifying the treaty. It will start work this year and aims to finish by 2024. WWF described the decision as one of the world’s most ambitious environmental actions since the 1989 Montreal Protocol, which phased out ozone-depleting substances.

What happens next?

World leaders have until 2024 to agree the plastic pollution treaty, including which elements will be legally binding and how the deal will be financed. Environmental groups are calling for clear and strong global standards that incentivise nations to stick to common rules and regulations over plastics, while penalising harmful products and practices. There will be pressure to help countries in the global south dealing with plastic problems created in the global north.

The resolution titled “End plastic pollution: towards a legally binding international instrument” establishes an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) tasked with preparing a new treaty that would address plastic pollution through a life-cycle approach, with the aim of producing the treaty by 2024.

In the UK

The UK Government has backed the ambitious global action to tackle plastic pollution. The UK provided support to kick start negotiations on a legally binding treaty.

At the conference, which was attended by the Lord Zac Goldsmith, UK Government Minister for International Environment, the UK provided support to kick start negotiations on a legally binding treaty on plastic pollution. The UK has also supported other ambitious action, including on:

  • Establishing an intergovernmental Science Policy Panel to conduct horizon scanning, assess current issues and facilitate communication between scientists and policy makers
  • Agreeing on the importance of nature-based solutions and on actions to scale up their implementation to simultaneously provide benefits to people and the planet.

Lord Zac Goldsmith, UK Government Minister for International Environment said: “This agreement by governments at UNEA is truly historic, and I’m so proud that the UK co-sponsored the proposals and helped get them over the line. In the space of just one human lifetime, we have caused unimaginable damage to the global environment, choking every single part of the global ocean with plastic pollution. And although there is much to be done now to turn it into an ambitious and far-reaching treaty, we can now begin to close this ugly chapter. I am so grateful to UK negotiators for their fantastic work securing agreement this week. While there are multilateral agreements to tackle biodiversity loss and climate change, up to now there has been no equivalent agreement to tackle plastic pollution.”

Other announcements include: “Every shopper in the UK” will have access to refillable groceries in a large supermarket or with a delivery service under plans by some of the country’s biggest grocers. Waitrose, Ocado, Morrisons, Marks & Spencer and the supply-chain company CHEP have joined a refillable grocery partnership and plan to both roll out unpackaged options in-store as well as letting people fill containers with essentials during home deliveries.

Finally, Water UK has published their response to Defra’s call for evidence on commonly littered and problematic plastic items. They urge the Government to go further than simply removing plastic from wet wipes, focusing instead on the overall environmental impact of these (and other) harmful products.

For example, removing plastic from wet wipes is a necessary condition of reducing harm to the environment caused by wet wipes, but it is insufficient on its own, as plastic-free wipes can still cause blockages due to other aspects of their contents. The water industry’s ‘Fine to Flush’ (WIS 4-02-06) standard is the only such accreditation which ensures no plastics are present in the product, and sufficiently mimics real-world forces present in the sewerage network that will ensure wipes disintegrate, reducing the risk of blockages.

The Water UK report can be found here.

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