A high-level United Nations environment assembly March 15 urged stronger action on plastic pollution and marine waste worldwide, although splits emerged as countries tussled over the best approach and those on the receiving end of global plastics waste flows sounded the loudest alarms.
The United States cautioned against being too "prescriptive" in approaching plastic litter and single-use plastics, while countries like Malaysia and Turkey urged a tougher approach such as a legally binding global treaty like a Montreal ozone protocol for plastics.
Malaysia took it a step further and asked developed countries to sharply cut back on exporting plastic scrap, as that country has seen its volumes of imported recycled plastic surge after China banned waste imports last year.
A U.N. statement said the countries agreed to “significantly” reduce single-use plastics by 2030.
The U.S. delegation to the U.N. Environment Assembly meeting, held March 11-15 in Nairobi, Kenya, told the group that while plastics pollution is a major challenge, it did not want to see a global approach that was overly prescriptive.
"The United States recognizes that marine plastics pollution is an important and growing issue and that urgent action is needed to reduce the release of plastic into the environment," a U.S. representative told the assembly, adding that "we know that many member states are taking ambitious action to reduce plastic pollution."
But the American delegation said that the U.N. meeting's consideration of two plastics pollution resolutions — one around marine litter and microplastics and a second more broadly around single-use plastics — pushed some policies the U.S. government did not support. The U.S. said the approach ignored unintended environmental consequences of targeting plastics and urged a broader consideration of other emissions and pollution.
"The language in question asks us to endorse the approach being taken in other countries, which is different than our own," the U.S. said. "We do not believe in a prescriptive approach."
The U.S. said that because the "majority of marine plastic discharges come from only six countries in Asia," more attention should be put on building waste management systems there.
But some Asian and Pacific island countries, who said they were on the receiving end of plastic waste from developed countries, urged much tougher action.
Malaysia told the forum that the assembly's resolutions around plastic were "weak" and said it would work with other countries to explore a global plastics treaty. It also noted discussions ongoing at the Basel Convention around restricting trade in plastic scrap between countries.
"Besides marine debris, Malaysia is extremely concerned over plastic waste and rubbish entering our country from other parts of the world, many with false declarations," the country's delegation said in comments at the assembly. "We want this to stop and it must stop at [the] source country, especially. We urge our developed country colleagues to help us in this."
The Kenya gathering is the fourth meeting of U.N. Environment Assembly. The topic of a global plastics treaty was discussed at the last meeting in 2017, where it was pushed by Norway and other delegations.
Many countries, including the United Kingdom, Fiji and New Zealand addressed plastic waste in comments. The U.K. said it was considering taxing plastic packaging if it did not have 30 percent recycled content.
And Fiji, which said it's on the "receiving end" of the world's plastic marine litter, said existing global efforts are "fragmentary" and urged legally binding treaties agreements with specific targets.
A coalition of environmental groups in a statement accused the U.S. of watering down the final result and said that India had proposed a resolution phasing out single-use plastics and that Norway, Sri Lanka and Japan specifically proposed considering a treaty.
“The vast majority of countries came together to develop a vision for the future of global plastic governance,” said David Azoulay, environmental health director at the Center for International Environmental Law in Washington D.C. “Seeing the U.S., guided by the interests of the fracking and petrochemical industry, leading efforts to sabotage that vision is disheartening. But the growing appetite for better global plastic governance is evident.”
Greenpeace said the U.S. should not "point fingers" at developing countries since U.S. global corporations contribute a lot of the packaging waste.
The World Plastics Councll, in a statement, praised the assembly for taking a science-based approach, and said tackling the problem will require technological innovation and better waste management, particularly in emerging countries.
“Tackling plastic waste in the environment requires advances in technology, and a change in our mindset, such that the used plastic becomes a feedstock or raw material for some other useful purpose,” said James Seward, chairman of the WPC and vice president of joint ventures and international marketing at LyondellBasell.
UNEA was formed in 2012 and meets every two years as the highest-level United Nations forum on environmental issues. A statement from the Japanese government suggested plastic would be part of the G20 agenda this year.