On Saturday 11 September 2021, the Federal Environment Minister, Sussan Ley announced that Australia had joined calls for a binding global plastics agreement.
Through a new Pacific Regional Declaration on the Prevention of Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution and its Impacts, Australia has joined pacific nations in urging United Nations Member States to negotiate a global agreement that is binding and that covers the whole life cycle of plastics, not just the plastic that ends up in the oceans.
Like a Paris Agreement for plastic, a new global treaty on plastic could be a game changer, with more than 100 countries around the world announcing their support for the idea.
But what does a UN treaty on plastic pollution mean for our oceans and wildlife, and what will it achieve?
Plastic pollution is out of control
Our oceans are filling up with plastic. If current trends continue, the amount of plastic waste polluting the oceans will triple by the year 2040, growing to 29m tonnes a year – the equivalent of 50kg for every metre of coastline in the world.¹
International law on plastic pollution is vague and inconsistent. Without clear global rules and targets, multinational companies have been able to get away with producing unrecyclable plastics that are impossible to recover. Instead they end up in our oceans, threatening wildlife like turtles, whales and seabirds who die when they eat or get entangled in plastic.
Unless rapid and ambitious action is taken across the world, this problem will continue to escalate until there is more plastic than fish in the sea.
Why do we need a global plastics treaty?
While voluntary initiatives have been helpful, and some states have taken action to ban single-use plastics or clean up plastics in local areas, action across the globe has been fragmented and ineffective.
- There is no clear global ambition or target
- No common obligation for nations to develop action plans
- No agreed standards for monitoring and reporting of plastics discharge into the sea
- No standardised review of the effectiveness of different pollution reduction measures
- No specialised scientific body with a mandate to assess the global problem and give guidance to decision makers
There is no one international law on plastic pollution. We need a UN treaty on plastic pollution to eliminate plastic pollution in our oceans and to create a safe circular economy for plastics where all plastics are recovered for reuse, recycling or composting.
What could a UN treaty on plastic pollution deliver?
While negotiations haven’t started yet, conservation experts across the globe have been working together to deliver a framework for action that would be strong and effective at fighting plastic pollution.
Some of the critical things a global agreement on plastic pollution could deliver include:
- Global targets with deadlines for reducing plastic and cleaning up our oceans, with all nations working together to eliminate unnecessary or dangerous plastics and ensure all plastic is reused, recycled or composted in practice. This could include things like an international ban on dumping plastic in rivers and waterways, and global bans on plastics like bags and straws that are a high risk for ocean wildlife.
- Monitoring and reporting on plastics in the natural environment, with nations required to report on their efforts to cut plastic. Advocates are also calling for a specialised international scientific body with a mandate to investigate and track the scale and sources of plastic pollution, providing world class scientific knowledge for effective policy making.
- Financial and technical support, with a dedicated global body providing financial support and technical expertise for countries with limited capacity. This would be critical for helping badly affected nations at the edges of the worst plastic hotspots like the Great Pacific Garbage patch, many of whom lack the infrastructure and resources to deal with the waves of plastic washing up on their shores.
What will it take to make a global plastics treaty happen?
We are at a critical point in this process, with a draft resolution that would formally start negotiations to be voted on at the UN Environment Assembly meeting in February 2022 (UNEA-5.2).
Ocean conservationists are calling on Australia to be a leader in efforts to secure a binding global treaty by co-sponsoring the draft resolution. This would send a strong message that Australia recognises the problems and wants to lead on finding the solutions. As ocean lovers, Australians expect no less.
- Pew Charitable Trusts and Systemiq. (2020). Breaking the Plastic Wave.