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UN environmentalists stretch to turn off the plastic tap

Delegates from 175 countries have approved a provisional UN accord to tackle plastic waste and pollution. The draft resolution from the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) targets ‘the full lifecycle of plastic’ within a proposed global treaty.

If approved, the draft resolution would come into force in 2024 and would focus efforts on design and production, which soared from an annual two million tonnes in 1950 to almost 350 million tonnes in 2017 and is projected to top 522 billion tonnes by 2040.

The UNEA met for more than a week in Nairobi. Representatives were told that a shift to a strong circular economy would reduce the volume of plastics entering oceans by over 80% by 2040, reduce virgin plastic production by 55%, save US$ 70 billion (EUR 63 billion) by 2040, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% and create 700 000 additional jobs – mainly in the southern hemisphere.

As a next step, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) will convene a forum for stakeholders by the end of the year to be held in conjunction with the first session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC). Together they will share knowledge and best practices around the world.

It is also meant to facilitate open discussions and ensure decisions are informed by science, reporting on progress throughout the next two years. When INC’s work is complete, UNEP will hold a conference to adopt the treaty and to sign up national governments.

Historic deal

‘Today marks a triumph by planet Earth over single-use plastics; this is the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the Paris accord,’ says Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP who calls it an ‘insurance policy’ for future generations.

‘Let it be clear that the INC’s mandate does not grant any stakeholder a two-year pause,’ Andersen stresses. ‘In parallel to negotiations over an international binding agreement, UNEP will work with any willing government and business across the value chain to shift from single-use plastics as well as to mobilise private finance and remove barriers to investments in research [towards] a new circular economy.’

‘History has been made,’ says Jewel Omollo, programme assistant at UNEP. ‘UNEA has demonstrated that an ambitious multilateral response to plastic is possible and that great things can happen when the world comes together. It’s so awe-inspiring to see the political will and public support to tackle the issue of systemic plastic pollution.’

Meanwhile, the Canadian artist Benjamin Von Wong created a three-story tall sculpture called ‘Turning off the Plastic Tap’ to show his support of the proposal.

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