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Nations to draft plastic waste treaty

Delegates from 175 nations to the U.N. Environment Assembly voted unanimously to devise a treaty that tries to cleanse the world of plastic pollution.

A life-size art installation in California depicting a blue whale draws attention to the threat of plastic pollution
A life-size art installation in California depicting a blue whale made of plastic draws attention to the threat of plastic pollution (AN/Fabrice Florin)

NAIROBI, Kenya (AN) — Delegates from 175 nations to the U.N. Environment Assembly voted unanimously on Wednesday to devise a legally binding global treaty that attempts to cleanse the world of plastic pollution.

The vote in Nairobi sets the stage for an intergovernmental negotiating committee that will begin work this year on a draft agreement.

"We are ready to do our utmost to end plastic pollution worldwide, and we welcome the decision by the Environment Assembly to establish an intergovernmental negotiating committee towards an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution," environment ministers said in a joint statement.

The assembly convenes delegates from among the United Nations' 193 member nations along with businesspeople and citizens every two years to take on the world's most pressing environmental issues.

The committee is expected to craft an agreement by 2024 that would be legally binding and cover all aspects of plastic production, design and disposal. The agreement also would aim to coordinate global access to science and technology that helps nations tackle the problem of plastic waste building up in the ocean, rivers and lakes.

"This is the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the Paris accord," said Inger Andersen, executive director of U.N. Environment, or UNEP, referring to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. "It is an insurance policy for this generation and future ones, so they may live with plastic and not be doomed by it.”

Norway’s climate and ennvironment minister, Espen Barth Eide, who presided over the three-day assembly, said its ability to win the cooperation of so many governments showed "multilateral cooperation at its best" especially when compared to the geopolitical turmoil from the war in Ukraine.

“Plastic pollution has grown into an epidemic," he said. "With today’s resolution we are officially on track for a cure.”

A half-trillion dollar industry

In 2020, the U.N. General Assembly launched a new group co-chaired by Norway, the Maldives, and Antigua and Barbuda to build political momentum and support for a new global agreement on marine plastic pollution.

At the time of the launch, Nigerian diplomat Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, then president of the 193-nation General Assembly based in New York, said more than 800 marine and coastal species were threatened by waste in the oceans.

An estimated 11 million metric tons of plastic waste winds up in the ocean every year, according to a 2020 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

"Without immediate and sustained action, that amount will nearly triple by 2040, to 29 million metric tons per year," the study said. "That’s the same as dumping 110 pounds (50 kilograms) of plastic on every meter of coastline around the world." The study pegged the global plastic industry's value at US$522.6 billion, and said it "is expected to double in capacity yet again by 2040."

The amount going into the ocean represents a more than one-third increase from the estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic — equivalent to one garbage truck emptied every minute — that a 2016 World Economic Forum study said was dumped into the ocean every year. Marine plastic pollution also costs fisheries, aquaculture, recreation and tourism up to US$2.5 trillion a year, according to Norway's U.N. Mission in New York.

Graham Forbes, Greenpeace USA's global plastic project lead, praised leaders in Nairobi for hearing the "millions of voices around the world" that want to end plastic pollution. "This is a big step," he said, "that will keep the pressure on big oil and big brands to reduce their plastic footprint and switch their business models to refill and reuse."