Environmental advocates are expecting the United Nations Environment Assembly to move the needle on ocean plastic pollution when it meets this week in Nairobi, Kenya. A significant breakthrough in global collaboration is not a foregone conclusion, but the growing scope of the crisis could motivate world leaders to take meaningful, decisive action. The question is whether or not consumers will be on board, too.
For the most part, the ocean plastic pollution crisis is all but hidden from public view, washing up on remote beaches or circulating on ocean currents. In the past, that invisibility was a significant obstacle for advocates seeking to rally public opinion around effective solutions.
In recent years, though, efforts to bring the problem to light have pushed the plastic crisis into the public spotlight. The issue has caught the attention of investors as well as corporate stakeholders who are seeking to clean up their supply chains.
Along with the related issue of microplastics, the ocean plastic crisis has also sparked growing investor interest in sustainable, biobased materials as well as new recovery and recycling technologies.
In addition to actions spearheaded by commercial stakeholders, a global effort has been taking shape under the 1989 Basel Convention, a legally binding document that outlines international agreements on the movement of e-waste and other hazardous wastes.
In 2019 the Convention was amended to include certain types of plastic waste. As part of that action, member states organized the public-private Plastic Waste Partnership, aimed at promoting a holistic approach that includes minimizing waste.
Business leaders also support the Plastics Pact, which focuses on new technology and innovative pathways at the producer side.
These actions are a good start, but petrochemical stakeholders are a powerful counterweight to progress, and the flow of plastic waste continues apace. According to the latest estimate from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 11 million metric tons of plastic enter the oceans of the world every year, a figure that is expected to double by 2030 under a business as usual scenario.
The scope and scale of the ocean plastic crisis clearly demand action on a higher level, and that is what advocates anticipate as the U.N. Environment Assembly meets in Nairobi.
As described by UNEP itself, the Environment Assembly is expected to launch a process resulting in a landmark treaty on the plastic pollution crisis when it meets in Nairobi.
In the run-up to the meeting, last week UNEP published a Q&A interview with its Executive Director, Inger Anderson, who made the case for definitive action.
“I am confident that Member States will decide on the path forward that makes a real difference to address plastic pollution,” Ms. Anderson emphasized, though she made it clear that questions regarding specific provisions of the new agreement cannot be answered at this stage of the process. That includes key issues, such as targeting plastic production, or broadening the scope over coverage beyond ocean plastic to include impacts on land.
However, Anderson did emphasize that UNEP is determined to launch a “rapid, ambitious and meaningful” collaboration on plastic pollution.
She also made it clear that all topics are on the table at this stage.
“The proposals being deliberated by Member States envision actions, from source to sea, that address all sources of pollution along the whole lifecycle - from production through disposal and reduction of the leakage of existing plastic currently in the global ecosystem,” continued Anderson.
With the circular economy in mind, the deliberations will include ways to focus different plastics and additives on ease of recycling.
As may be expected, transparency will be another key issue. The U.N. already has a reporting tool in hand through existing Multilateral Environmental Agreements. Anderson is concerned that “reporting fatigue” could become an issue, but she also noted that other tracking and reporting methodologies could be enlisted to lighten the load. Among the examples she cited are the Minderoo Foundation Plastic Waste Makers Index and the Back to Blue Plastics Management Index.
Anderson also noted that both the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change and the Basel Convention include provisions for implementation, verification, and compliance, in addition to the Minamata Convention on Mercury.
Anderson emphasized that these pathways are designed to assist, not punish.
“Whatever the modalities arrived at by countries, it is critical that they create sufficient incentives for multiple stakeholders to benefit from a new global plastics circular economy. This then flips the emphasis – from enforcement to creating an enabling environment where it is in everyone’s interests to implement the agreement,” she said.
Anderson makes a strong case that Nairobi meeting is not starting from scratch. In addition to support from existing environmental platforms and partnerships, the effort is also launching at a time when voluntary efforts to manage the ocean plastic crisis have been exposed as ineffectual, and interest in a stronger approach is rising.
“Under the Ellen MacArthur Foundation/UNEP Global Commitments for Plastics, a large number of businesses and countries are supportive of a global agreement on plastic pollution, recognizing voluntary initiatives alone will not be enough,” Anderson said. She also cited support for a new global agreement among 154 countries listed by the WWF Global Plastic Navigator.
As for the petrochemical counterweight, the tipping point is already in sight. Thanks to the increased public awareness of the crisis, businesses at every link in the plastic value chain have a bottom-line stake in stemming the flow of ocean plastic.
“We are seeing that shareholders of companies and consumers are increasingly paying attention to the pollution challenges that may be arising from their investments and their purchasing decisions,” Anderson observed.
Still, the outcome is not guaranteed. Consumer sentiment is generally supportive of steps to reduce plastic pollution. However, on a more granular level, a small undercurrent of opposition to new regulations could become an outsized impediment, as recently demonstrated by the response to COVID-19 prevention measures by anti-vaccination activists and right-wing extremists.
Even limited steps, such as banning single-use plastic straws or plastic bags, have been meet with a flood of complaints. If and when the Nairobi meeting leads to a legally binding agreement on plastics, its effectiveness will depend on swift, strong support from informed consumers who understand the importance of unifying around strategies to stem a looming crisis.
Image credit: Brian Yurasits via Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.