Plastic pollution is one of the key issues that the world faces today. Over the last decades, billions of tons of plastic have been produced, which has led to the destruction of natural ecosystems and has impacted biodiversity as well as human health. From air pollution resulting from plastic burning to consumption of micro-plastics in food and water, humans and natural ecosystems face adverse impacts to their health and wellbeing.
It is estimated that the production of plastic has increased over the last decades and reached around 400 million tons per year. Without decisive measures to curb plastic production, it is calculated that this figure could double by 2040.
The need for urgent action
The plastic pollution problem is not a geographically limited one. There are clear transboundary impacts as plastic moves through waterways (such as rivers and oceans), the air, and different supply and value chains. Accordingly, finding solutions to plastic pollution as a global problem needs to bring together actions at the local, national, and regional level which interlink to global efforts.
It is estimated that plastic accounts for 85% of all marine litter. Many beaches across the world gather plastic waste that was generated in different countries, highlighting that plastic waste generated in one country does not remain restricted to its origin area, particularly in the case of micro and nanoplastics. Solutions to manage plastic waste therefore require a global regulatory process that brings together commitments from countries across the world and allows for robust measures that can deliver concrete positive outcomes.
In addition to marine litter, 46% of plastic waste is estimated to end up in landfills, with 22% being calculated as mismanaged world-wide. It is also estimated that 17% of plastic waste is incinerated while only 15% of global plastic waste is moved to recycling. It is further calculated that the actual recycling post loss remains at 9%. Available data points to the heightened need to take immediate action to conserve the planet as well as its human and natural systems from the adverse impacts of plastic pollution.
A global plastic treaty
In February 2022, the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2) adopted a resolution to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution. Through the work of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment, this treaty is expected to complete its negotiations for adoption by the end of 2024.
A global legal instrument on plastic pollution is envisioned to present a comprehensive approach to promoting sustainable production and consumption, with a focus on the entire lifecycle of plastic. Additionally, it is expected to focus on approaches such as circular economy to ensure that plastic waste management is addressed through resource efficiency and avoidance of waste.
At the first session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-1), which was held in December 2022, the negotiations on the legal instrument were initiated. The session focused on aspects such as the scope of the legally binding instrument as well as potential approaches to be applied to address plastic pollution across the plastic lifecycle. Further focuses included the banning of single-use plastics; approaches such as production restrictions; as well as other approaches which include restrictions, reduction of plastic use and enhanced waste management.
The multiple stakeholders gathering in Punta del Este for the first session of negotiations also focused on questions related to responsibility, which includes extended responsibility as well as the producer pays principle. Additionally, just transition in the waste management sector is another key component to be addressed, which was also discussed at INC-1. This would include approaches to address plastic pollution without adversely impacting livelihoods—for example, the ones of those who collect plastic waste—and transitioning from such livelihoods to different ones where plastic production is to be curbed and waste generation is reduced.
Among the key elements of agreement were the need for including rules and regulations that lead to minimizing plastic production and use; the need for robust commitments and monitoring mechanisms; and the need to manage plastic waste in a manner that is not harmful to the environment.
The way forward
Moving forward in the development of a global plastic treaty, it would be important to focus on public participation in the decision-making processes related to managing plastic pollution, as well as public awareness with regards to the challenges, the need for action, and the existing processes for addressing the plastic problem on the local, national, and global level.
Furthermore, it would be important to identify synergies for national- and local-level actions which interlink with processes related to climate change and sustainable development, allowing the plastic treaty and national policies on plastic pollution to leverage common actions to create a greater overall impact. In many countries, waste management is already a prioritized area of climate action and policy. The potential to explore opportunities for generating synergies for action at local and global level is worth exploring and could enhance both plastic waste management and climate action at all levels leading to concrete progress.
Note: This article has been published on The Morning as part of the author’s weekly column.
Vositha is an attorney-at-law specialising in public international law, with a focus on international environmental law, UN human rights law, refugee law and EU law. She has over a decade of experience in working on climate change, at national and international level. Vositha is a member of the national expert committee on climate change adaptation of the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment, national expert on vulnerability and adaptation measures for the Third National Communication of Sri Lanka to the UNFCCC for the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment, and is a delegate focusing on compliance, adaptation, loss and damage, and gender for the Sri Lankan delegation to the UNFCCC since 2016. She is also a consultant to the UNFCCC national adaptation plans and policy unit, and worked as a country support consultant to the UNDP NAP Global Support Programme. Vositha has an LLM in public international law from University College London, and an LLB from University of London.