UN Calls for Legal Action Against Plastic Pollution

In Nairobi, early 2022, delegates hugged each other as a resolution to end plastic pollution was endorsed at the session of the United Nations Environment Assembly. The Assembly has been taking historical action against plastic pollution since, working throughout 2022 to draw up a legally binding instrument that can be used worldwide to negate the effect of plastic pollution by holding polluters legally accountable.

Resolution 5/14 towards a legally binding instrument on plastic pollution was developed in February 2022 and considers both how plastic affects the marine environment, and the impact of plastic at every stage of its lifecycle – extraction, production, use and disposal. This resolution aims for a legally binding agreement to be created by the end of 2024 by an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC). This agreement will offer alternative designs and plans for plastic reduction and recycling and address the need for a cohesive international approach to plastic pollution, one which considers the discrepancy of access to technology and scientific information between nations.

After Resolution 5/14 kickstarted the motion in February, during the months of November and December 2022, the INC had its first session to gather information and develop this legal instrument. 2500 people representing a huge number of countries and stakeholders attended the INC-1 meeting in Uruguay. There were four main points of discussion during this meeting. The first covered the importance of a universally accessible instrument, one which is “broad enough and deep enough to cover the whole plastics problem, whilst also ensuring that all countries can participate”. This will allow for a focus on what can be done at each stage of the plastic lifecycle, whilst ensuring accessibility for all nations.

The second discussion point considered the importance of following science to develop this instrument, whilst assessing a range of stakeholder views in order to create a “new plastics economy”. This means using scientific knowledge to identify hot spots for action, but also addressing the fact that plastic pollution affects everyone, so a diverse range of opinions is needed in order to create something inclusive and useful for all. When speaking at this first session, Inger Anderson, Under-Secretary-General of the UN, and Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, highlighted the importance of considering the opinions of “civil society organisations, academia, indigenous peoples, the informal sector, youth, trade unions as well as the private sector” when creating the deal. This discussion point highlights the link between human rights and plastic pollution. The OHCHR (United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner) believe the most effective way to rid the world of plastic pollution is to take a human rights-based approach to the new treaty. You can read their key human rights considerations for the negotiations here.

Thirdly, the INC has focused on creating a successful multilateral treaty, which both draws upon the positives of previous multilateral agreements, whilst being innovative. Reflecting on successful multilateral agreements will be useful in creating an agreement which is functional, however Inger Anderson highlighted in her speech at INC-1 the importance on building on previous work to create something dynamic and new; something that combines environmental and climate concerns with social and health issues.

And finally, the fourth discussion point raised at this meeting was the importance of ensuring developing countries can participate in this agreement by providing financial and technical assistance. The agreement will consider that whilst a lot of action can be taken in developed countries, less developed nations will need support to meet the terms of the agreement.  Skills, technology, and financial support will be needed in order to make the instrument accessible and successful. As this is a global issue, global support and aid to less developed nations will be essential to tackling the problem of plastic pollution, especially for Small Island Developing States (SIDS) as they have a unique experience with plastic. SIDS usually import plastic and don’t have the infrastructure for waste management, plus a lot of unwanted plastic waste washes up on their shores from the marine environment. The aim of the agreement is to support these SIDS by creating a circular economy for plastics which utilises the skills of locals and focuses on reusing and recycling rather than importing and improper disposal.

It will not be an easy feat. With so much to agree upon and so many nations and stakeholders to consider before the deadline of December 2024, drawing up the framework for a legally binding instrument will be an undeniable challenge. However, we are thrilled that there is finally global, cohesive action towards ridding our planet of the scourge of plastic pollution. As Resolution 5/14 develops towards December 2024, we will be posting updates in the hope of announcing a successful and comprehensive legal instrument next year.

By Hannah Cooper