The United Nation's top environment body wrapped up a pandemic-limited virtual session Feb. 23, with leaders of the gathering of the world's environment ministers vowing to press ahead on talks for a global plastics pollution treaty.
At a news conference closing the United Nations Environment Assembly meeting, UNEA's top official said the 2021 digital-only meeting made it challenging to have detailed talks but he argued there's strong interest in moving forward on plastics when the body holds an in-person assembly in early 2022.
"There has certainly been a strong momentum building [with] a lot of nations joining calls to agree on a binding agreement and a lot of countries are taking steps on their own," said Sveinung Rotevatn, UNEA's president and Norway's minister of environment and climate. "But I think we'll have to wait … before we get into negotiations between member states, and we'll see where that leads."
The details of any potential treaty remain unclear, but advocates see it as a way for countries to commit to national plans around reducing plastics pollution and encouraging more sustainable business models.
Rotevatn said Norway prefers a binding agreement but he acknowledged differences between countries.
"Speaking as the Norwegian environment minister, I could certainly be in favor of [a binding treaty]," he said. "But as you know, at UNEA we take decisions together, and we'll see what the appetite is."
Some of those differences and the details of a potential treaty were on display at a Feb. 17 U.N.-sponsored diplomatic forum on how nations should address plastics.
There, governments from Europe and Africa, along with a high-level U.N. official, urged UNEA to start drafting a formal treaty.
Ines dos Santos Costa, Portugal's secretary of state of environment, told the forum a global treaty would help coordinate different national approaches on plastic and should consider things like carbon pricing, leveling the field between recycled and virgin plastics, product design, recycled content and litter control.
"We need to have a global legal framework that is fit to tackle this problem at an international level," she said. "Of course we need plastics, but I think we have relied on it beyond [what is] reasonable to allow low-cost mass production to favor disposability."
She said plastics production is projected to double by 2040, and the amount of plastic in the ocean will quadruple, indicating that current control efforts are not working. Costa said investments in cleanup and recycling are lagging well behind investments in new plastic production.
A United Nations report released Feb. 18 for the UNEA meeting said that plastic litter in the oceans has grown tenfold since 1980 and accounts for 60-80 percent of marine debris.
The idea of a global treaty has previously garnered some support from businesses. Packaging maker Amcor Ltd., polyolefins maker Borealis AG and recycling equipment supplier Tomra issued a joint statement in October, with Coca-Cola Co. and other large companies, supporting a global treaty.
Borealis said at the time there was an "urgent need" for a more ambitious approach.
But one U.N. official at the Feb. 17 event, Peter Thomson, the U.N. Secretary General's special envoy for the ocean, predicted difficult discussions with the plastics industry.
"I foresee a long, hard engagement with the producers of plastic, the petrochemical industry," Thomson said. "I imagine this battle could make our long, drawn-out struggle with the tobacco industry look like a bun-fight."
The details of any potential global agreement are yet to be settled. Advocates have said they do not envision it funding waste management around the world, but rather guide countries in setting national plastic plans, developing sustainability standards for the material and providing financial assistance around research.
The eight member nations of the Nordic Council made a similar call for a plastics treaty in October and said more than 100 other nations supported it.