One-hundred and seventy-five nations have finally endorsed a resolution to end plastic pollution, and establish an international legally binding agreement by 2024 that addresses the full lifecycle of plastic, including its production, design, and disposal, at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi on March 2. The resolution is being hailed as ‘historic’ by governments as well as non-governmental organisations raising hopes that the world may finally unite to fight the plastic epidemic.
"The most important environmental deal since the Paris accord." is how Inger Anderson, Executive Director of the UNEA, described the mandate titled, ‘End plastic pollution: Towards an international legally binding instrument’.
An unintended and unfortunate comparison. For a world riddled with plastic waste in all its nooks and crevices, the plastic pollution treaty cannot afford to be too late, too little, and too vague like the Paris Agreement is in arresting runaway Climate Change. To be clear, the resolution does not signal the end of plastic pollution, but the beginning of long and hard negotiations to ‘draft’ a global legally-binding agreement by the end of 2024, following which, very much like in the UNFCCC negotiations, countries will debate about who will cut down how much, by when and so on, while the world continues to choke on its own plastic waste.
For context, within our lifetime, plastic production soared from 2 million tonnes in 1950 to 348 million tonnes in 2017, becoming a global industry valued at $522.6 billion, and it is expected to double in capacity by 2040. Global plastics production was estimated to be 367 million metric tons in 2020. Production in 2020 decreased by roughly 0.3 percent compared with the previous year due to COVID-19's impacts on the industry.
Interestingly, according to delegates present at the week-long negotiations in Nairobi, even as the fossil fuel and chemical lobby led by The American Chemistry Council industry group that includes ExxonMobil Chemical Company, Shell Chemical and Dow among its 190 members, tried their best to water down the resolution, the consumer goods giants and major plastic customers including the likes of Coca-Cola and Unilever that sell thousands of products in single-use packaging were steadfast in their support for a legally binding agreement that covers the whole lifecycle of plastics, not just the management of waste, and targets a reduction in the production, and use of virgin plastics.
Needless to say any treaty that puts restrictions on plastic production, design, and use will have a serious impact on major plastic-producing countries such as China, India, Japan, and the United States, and is expected to be fiercely opposed by fossil fuel and chemical industry. After all in a world set on decarbonising, plastics is the plan B for oil and chemical industry.
As it has done in climate negotiations, in Nairobi too, India came under some criticism as it did not budge on its ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ demand, and argued vociferously in favour of voluntary actions instead of binding actions. According to a statement from the Indian Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC), “On the insistence of India, the principle of national circumstances and capability while taking actions to address plastic pollution was included in the text of the resolution to allow developing countries follow their development trajectories. India also stood for not mandating the inter-governmental negotiating committee with development of targets, definitions, formats and methodologies, at this stage, pre-judging the outcome of deliberations of the Committee. The provision for immediate collective voluntary actions by the countries was also included to address plastic pollution on urgent and continual basis.”
The fact is that by 2024 when the draft of plastic treaty is ready, it is estimated that India will dump at least 75 lakh tonnes of plastic waste, based on the average of 35 lakh tonnes per annum (and growing), into its rivers, beaches, and mountains, littering the country side, destroying the biodiversity, and polluting the ocean.
Like Climate Change, plastic pollution knows no borders. Like fossil fuel emissions, plastic pollution is impacting biodiversity, contaminating air, water, food chains, and ultimately human health. Single-use plastic has no place on this planet, and there is literally no time to waste to develop and deploy safe alternatives. Unless all nations act together, with the same urgency and agency as they did for Montreal Protocol, the “impacts of plastic production and pollution on the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature loss and pollution are a catastrophe in the making.”
Shailendra Yashwant is a senior advisor to Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA). Twitter: @shaibaba.
Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.