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A Global Instrument to End Plastic Pollution

The world made a big step forward to keep plastics out of our ocean at the United Nations Environmental Assembly

Plastic Jellyfish. Cayman Islands
© Alex Mustard / Ocean Image Bank

Last month, I had a front row seat to the biggest international effort to tackle the scourge of plastic pollution yet. On March 2, 2022, the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA) agreed on a resolution under the name “End plastic pollution: Towards an internationally legally binding instrument.” This historic resolution is a triumph of international collaboration even amongst geopolitical turmoil. It is the first major step in addressing the plastic pollution emergency.

To have arrived at this point is no small feat. Many thought it would be difficult, if not outright impossible to meet the needs and wants of countries around the world in a single text. There were many issues on the table, such as whether an agreement would be legally binding or voluntary and if it would address plastic production and design or be confined to improving waste management and recycling. The agreement speaks volumes to the great work done by all negotiators and the spirit of cooperation and compromise shown by all parties involved.

What does this resolution do?

The Executive Director of the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) is tasked with convening a committee to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution. They will use a comprehensive approach that addresses the full lifecycle of plastic. The committee will begin its work in 2022, with the ambition of completing the draft of the legally binding instrument by the end of 2024.

This instrument will consider national realities and allow for country-driven approaches to tackle the issue, as well as provide for flexibility to adapt to local circumstances. It is expected to include national action plans to prevent, reduce, and eliminate plastic pollution.

What is the United Nations Environmental Assembly?

UNEA was created in 2012 to foster and create a system of international environmental governance. It is the world’s highest-level decision-making body for the environment and has a universal membership of all 193 UN Member States. UNEA sets priorities for global environmental policies and develops international environmental law. Every two years the assembly meets to provide leadership, catalyze intergovernmental action on the environment and contribute to the implementation of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Quoting a former UNEP Executive Director, UNEA is “the world’s parliament on the environment.”

UNEA brings together scientists, business leaders, community members and other environmental leaders to highlight the most pressing environmental issues and create global solutions. The assembly was designed to place the environment at the center of the international community’s focus, putting it at the same level as issues like peace, poverty, health and security. The establishment of UNEA was kicked off at the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972. So, the world is celebrating 50 years of UN environmental engagement this year.

What does a “legally binding instrument” mean?

A legally binding instrument is an enforceable agreement between countries. It is an important tool to tackle a global challenge like plastic pollution. In this case, the instrument under development can inform national environmental laws and policies governing the production, use and recycling of plastic products in countries worldwide. Corporations that make, use or manage plastic and its waste are likely to be affected by this agreement as well.

There are many considerations that will go into the development of this agreement. For instance, some aspects of plastic pollution have already been addressed in other international treaties or conventions, so this must work for all these agreements and organizations. The committee must consider what qualifies as plastic and how to address microplastics. They will also have to consider which parts are binding obligations, voluntary measures or best addressed through national action plans.

Once the legally binding instrument has been adopted, the further evolution of the agreement, its obligations, its evaluation and its enforcement would occur through meetings of the parties after its entry into force.

The private sector and other environmental stakeholders, like Ocean Conservancy, will have the opportunity to participate as observers in the meetings to develop, inform and advise on this plastics agreement. We have been involved now for years in this process as a constructive partner to help close the gap between governments, community organizations and the private sector. As an organization committed to protecting the environment, caring for our ocean and fighting climate change, we will remain committed as the process continues.

This is a historical opportunity to tackle plastic pollution once and for all. Ocean Conservancy is thrilled to work with countries around the globe to create an agreement that will create a healthier future for our ocean. There is no time to waste to tackle the ocean plastics crisis. Our planet needs it, our children need it, our ocean needs it.

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