175 Nations Agree to Negotiate New International Treaty to Curb Plastics Pollution

The world’s nations have agreed to negotiate a landmark treaty by 2024 to curb plastics pollution which is choking oceans, killing fish and wildlife and polluting water, soils and foods with toxic chemicals. 

The agreement by some 175 UN member states was reached Wedneaday evening at the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi. It offers a bright light of international cooperation at a time when Europe is at war and climate change signals are ever more alarming. 

“Today marks a triumph by planet earth over single-use plastics. This is the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the Paris accord. It is an insurance policy for this generation and future ones, so they may live with plastic and not be doomed by it.” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP.

“Against the backdrop of geopolitical turmoil, the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) shows multilateral cooperation at its best,” said Norway’s Minister for Climate and the Environment, Espen Barth Eide, who presided over the UNEA event. “Plastic pollution has grown into an epidemic. With today’s resolution we are officially on track for a cure.”

Waste from single-used plastics has increased exponentially from just two million tons in 1950, to 348 million tons in 2017, as part of a global industry valued at $522.6 billion, according to the  United Nations Environment Programme.  

In a business-as-usual scenario, volumes of plastics pollution would double again by 2040, said the UN agency. 

Plastics pollution: Twin health and climate crisis

Plastics production use and disposal are all major, unrecognized contributors to climate change – beginning with the petro-chemical products used as inputs to the CO2 emissions generated by the high-tech incineration of plastic in high-income countries – and crude open-burning of plastic waste in lower-income nations.  

By 2050, greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastic production, use and disposal, would account for 15% of climate emissions – providing that countries succeed in limiting those to levels that meet the 2015 Paris Agreement goal of keeping global temperature rise, UNEP says. 

But from a health standpoint, the silent infiltration of toxic microplastics into food, water supplies, soils, fisheries and wildlife is creating an equally insidious epidemic.  A growing number of scientific studies point to a wide range of health impacts ranging from fertility to endocrine disorders due to the ingestion of microplastics associated with food package, plastics plates and other food-related sources, as well as consumption of micro-plastics contaminated fish and wildlife.  Emissions of health-harmful dioxins, furins and other toxic particles from open burning has further health impacts, which can contribute to respiratory illnesses and cancers.  Plastics contamination of soils, and related to that, soil fertility and food production is another growing concern

Agriculture Plastic Residues Are Poisoning Soils, Food Systems & Threatening Human Health, Says FAO 

With regards to water sources, a WHO study from 2019 did not find significant evidence of widespread plastics contamination yet – but it acknowledged that the evidence remains limited and more research is needed.

The historic UNEA resolution, entitled “End Plastic Pollution: Towards an internationally legally binding instrument”, was adopted with the conclusion of the three-day UNEA-5.2 meeting, attended by more than 3,400 in-person and 1,500 online participants from 175 UN Member States, including 79 ministers and 17 high-level officials.

20 fossil fuel companies responsible for most plastics pollution 

Single-use plastics, such as bottles, bags and food packages, are the most commonly discarded type of plastic. Made almost exclusively from fossil fuels, these “throwaway” plastics often end their short lifecycle polluting the oceans, being burned or dumped into landfills.

Last year, a study by the UK-based Plastic Makers Index found just 20 companies were the source of more than half of single-use plastic items thrown away globally.

The research found that 20 petrochemical companies were responsible for 55% of the world’s single-use plastic waste, with US  ExxonMobil topping the list with 5.9 million metric tons contribution to global plastic waste, closely followed by U.S. chemicals company Dow and China’s Sinopec.

The health sector is a major consumer of single use plastics for countless medical procedures – and those uses have only exploded further during the COVID crisis with the swelling global demand for masks and other protective gear for health care workers as well as people moving about infected communities. 

Although the United Nations Environment Programme has led the charge on plastics waste, WHO has published warnings that 1 in 3 healthcare facilities globally do not safely manage healthcare waste. 

However, after years of encouraging health care facilities to adopt throw-away medical devices – from tubing to syringes as an infection prevention measures – disposing of them by burning or landfilling – finding new technologies that use less toxic plastics, and better ways to separate and reprocess contaminated health care waste remains an uphill challenge.  

Image Credits: WHO/European Pressphoto Agency (EPA).

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