More aggressive action against plastic waste, especially to keep it from getting into the oceans, was in the driver's seat at a major United Nations environmental meeting Dec. 6, with some countries advocating a zero tolerance approach.
The U.N. Environment Assembly's actions are not legally binding, but more than 200 countries adopted a resolution urging much more be done about plastic waste, and some said they want the action to lead to legally binding treaties.
Norway's Minister of Climate and Environment Vidar Helgesen, for example, told the Reuters news service the plastics language is “very strong” and that countries will now “explore a legally binding instrument and other measures and that will be done at the international level over the next 18 months.”
The assembly met Dec. 4-6 in Nairobi, Kenya, and adopted 13 resolutions on topics including plastics, mercury and lead poisoning, and air pollution. It was the third gathering of the assembly, with the next session likely in two years.
The plastics industry, through the World Plastics Council, issued a statement Dec. 6 saying the assembly vote “adds to the fast-growing global consensus that to end marine plastic pollution we must invest in improved municipal solid waste management, with a focus on emerging economies with large populations near rivers and coastlines.”
WPC is made up of plastics trade associations around the world, including the American Chemistry Council, PlasticsEurope and the Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association.
WPC Chairman Abdulrahman Al-Fageeh said the U.N. resolution is consistent with other research and government statements from APEC, the G-7 and G-20, and commitments by plastics makers. He said the plastics industry supports 260 marine litter projects globally.
“Since 2011, our industry has partnered in many efforts to research and prevent marine debris around the world,” he said. “Marine debris is a complex, global issue that deserves thoughtful consideration and action on the part of government, scientists and industries working together.”
But other actions up for serious consideration by the U.N. body include things that could make some in the industry nervous, including container deposits (which the resolution specifically encouraged), plastic bag bans and phasing out single-use plastics.
The executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme, which organized the assembly, said in a Dec. 6 tweet at the close of the forum that his blueprint for “what comes next” included, as his first item, to “stop plastics.”
“For too long, we have treated the ocean as a bottomless dumping ground for plastic, sewage and other waste,” said Erik Solheim, director of U.N. Environment. In a news release he identified plastic pollution, air quality and chemicals as the priority areas from the meeting.
Helgesen, who co-chaired a U.N. meeting on plastic ocean debris in June, said at the closing session that he favored a “zero vision” for plastic waste, and said stronger worldwide action is needed on marine litter.
“There is a lack of a coherent international governing framework to address marine litter in a comprehensive manner,” Helgesen said. “The rapidly increasing level of plastic litter and microplastics in our oceans is a global concern.”
The assembly meeting suggests high-level discussions around plastics will continue, with stepped up attention from governments.
Plastics industry officials in the past have called the U.N. Environment Programme's approach “problematic,” particularly after that agency declared a “war on ocean plastic” earlier this year.
Industry executives have said they prefer approaches that focus on building government waste collection programs, like that pushed by the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, instead of product bans.
WPC noted in its statement that a study by Trucost found that replacing plastics with other materials in consumer goods and packaging would increase environmental costs three-fold.
But the U.N. meeting included discussions on actions against specific products, including an official side conference on Kenya's recent plastic bag ban.
The assembly also celebrated moves in Chile and Sri Lanka to ban or restrict plastic bags or single-use plastics.
The assembly focused on pollution because, according to Helgesen, it is the single-largest cause of premature deaths worldwide, accounting for 9 million deaths, with air pollution causing 6.5 million of those early fatalities.
The U.N. said pollution also is a drag on economic growth, equal to 6.2 percent of global economic output.