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Unea-5.2: Why we need a legally binding global treaty on plastic pollution

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Zaynab Sadan is the Programme Officer: Circular Plastics Economy with WWF South Africa.

Hundreds of businesses, financial institutions, civil society organisations and stakeholder groups have joined hands with more than two million individuals to call on governments to start negotiations on a new global treaty to combat plastic pollution. This week in Nairobi, negotiations on a mechanism for thrashing out the terms of such a treaty will take centre stage at Unea-5.2. Is it too little, too late?

It never feels like I’m doing quite enough. On the one hand, I join a group of volunteers picking up litter on the beachfront, I separate my recyclable items and I use reusable bags for my weekly groceries. On the other hand, I still end up purchasing and disposing of plastic packaging and products when there is no alternative, or when the alternative is not convenient and/or readily accessible.

Although there is more awareness and there are more initiatives to tackle this problem, most efforts are still focused on downstream activities such as waste management and clean-ups, while few look upstream at circular product design and new business models. It is not a question of either/or. There is a need to address plastic pollution holistically, working at multiple levels and addressing failures across the full life cycle of plastics. Anything less is futile.

I continue to be inspired by the collaborative efforts to tackle plastic pollution by actors across the plastics value chain. Some examples include a commitment by members of the South African Plastics Pact to phase out 12 problematic and unnecessary plastic items by December 2022; informal waste reclaimers collaborating with residents in several neighbourhoods in Johannesburg on separation at source and recycling collection services; and plastic recyclers working with brands and retailers to develop new end markets for recycled content in products. However, voluntary actions lack sufficient participation; clear legally binding targets are needed to address the problem at the scale and pace required.

Many countries have already introduced policies, legislation and regulations to address plastic pollution. The South African government, for example, has introduced three important interventions to address plastic pollution and related issues in the past two years. These include mandatory extended producer responsibility for plastic packaging and other waste streams, recent amendments to the plastic carrier bag regulations to increase levels of recycled content and finally a guideline to integrate informal waste pickers at municipal level. The implementation and enforcement of these measures are crucial in moving South Africa forward in the circular economy transition for plastics. This includes moves towards incentivising separation at source, improving recycling rates, and increasing end-use markets for recycled materials.

These policies and legislative measures are not unique to South Africa; 37 African countries have implemented bans of plastic carrier bags and other single-use plastic items. However, each country legislates and implements these to varying degrees, with the added challenge of weak enforcement in certain cases. Many countries report on “porous borders” or illegal trade and transport of items banned in one country but not another.

We find plastic polymers being produced in one country, products and packaging being manufactured in another, plastic goods being distributed and sold in another, and impacts of pollution experienced in another. This global, transboundary challenge cannot be solved by individual countries in isolation. It calls for a coordinated approach.

It’s time we recognised the need for a framework at a global level to ensure that efforts are coordinated, that the latest science is consolidated and understood, and that there is a common global commitment to combat plastic pollution at the pace and scale that is required.

This is why more than 120 businesses and financial institutions, more than 700 civil society organisations and stakeholder groups, and more than 2.2 million individuals are calling on governments to start negotiations on a new global treaty to combat plastic pollution, which holds the promise of what is required. But even so, I find myself asking, will a new global treaty on plastic pollution be too little, too late?

Well, yes, it would be too little if the proposed global treaty lacks ambition, is not legally binding, and does not have universal membership. And it will be too late, if governments delay the start of negotiations any longer, thereby delaying the implementation of such a treaty.

The plastic pollution issue formally entered the global stage at the very first United Nations Environment Assembly (Unea) in 2014, framed as an issue of marine litter and microplastics. Eight years later, after several scientific studies, policy analyses and advocacy campaigns, 184 countries are calling for a global treaty on plastic pollution. And while the legally binding nature and the scope of such a treaty are still up in the air, there is a great level of confidence that a decision to start negotiating these details will be taken at Unea-5.2, which will be held both online and in person in Nairobi, Kenya, from 28 February to 2 March 2022.

The start of negotiations for the global treaty is only the first step and it does not come with pre-packaged silver bullet solutions. Treaty negotiations are expected to provide the platform to establish shared objectives, ambitious targets and implementation support to be mobilised and directed where needed. Governments would need to commit to engaging actively in the treaty negotiating process and, in parallel, start setting up the necessary processes to ensure the seamless transition from treaty development to effective implementation.  

A draft resolution is being negotiated in the lead-up to Unea-5.2, calling for the establishment of an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) to begin treaty negotiations. The time frame for treaty negotiations to reach completion is still undecided. The Montreal Protocol for the protection of the ozone layer, for example, was negotiated in only nine months, while negotiations for the Minamata Convention on Mercury took just under four years. Early drafts of the resolutions put forward proposed completion of treaty negotiations by Unea-6. The date for Unea-6 is not finalised, but is likely to be within a timeframe of two years. This is ambitious and optimistic, but not unprecedented, and matches the urgency of the issue.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought about many limitations and delays in multilateral processes and forced more virtual engagements; hopefully this is not a reason to slow down the treaty negotiation process. However, it should be noted that virtual engagements have sometimes compromised the participation of some governments, at times due to unreliable internet infrastructure or technical issues. Unea-5.2, as well as the preparatory meetings leading up to it, will be held in a hybrid format, which will most likely set the tone for how future multilateral engagements of this nature, including future meetings of the INC, will unfold.

Although 95% of UN member states support the call for a global treaty on plastic pollution, not all member states are in the same boat in terms of contribution to the global issue and resources to address it. Hence, it becomes imperative that developing countries more broadly, and African Member States in particular, clearly articulate their perspectives and priorities on elements of the proposed global treaty.

African Ministers for the Environment took such a decisive first step at the 18th Session of the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment. In their key policy messages, they made a commitment to work towards a new global legally binding agreement on marine litter and plastic pollution and to support the draft resolution on marine litter and plastic pollution presented by Peru and Rwanda and endorsed by more than 50 countries. The statement further called for a support structure for implementation in developing countries, and specifically addressing gaps in scientific knowledge, capacity, technological advances, technical and financial support.

The Group of 77 – a coalition of 134 developing countries – and China, also presented a statement to affirm the commitment to address plastic pollution and support the aim to initiate negotiations on “a new global agreement on plastic pollution with ambitious goals and equally ambitious means of implementation, and wide participation”.

In the meantime, treaty negotiations should not stop governments and businesses from taking action to address plastic pollution. The global treaty is not meant to disregard current efforts at national, regional and global levels. Rather, it should complement, coordinate and collaborate with existing frameworks so that these efforts are amplified and supported.

And so, while momentum towards combating the plastic pollution challenge grows at multiple levels, it is imperative to ensure:

  1. That governments come together to develop an ambitious global treaty through the establishment of an INC at Unea-5.2;
  2. That governments actively participate in treaty negotiations and the development of processes to establish the means of implementation; and
  3. That treaty negotiations do not halt other public and private efforts to address plastic pollution at regional, national and subnational levels.

Now, more than ever, leadership from governments is important to set up an enabling environment for actions at global, regional, national and subnational levels. This in turn will help efforts at community or individual levels to receive the support they need. The decision at Unea-5.2 is critical for ensuring we keep plastic out of nature and transition towards a circular plastics economy. DM/OBP

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