The beginning of the end for throwaway plastic

A historic international agreement has been reached to end the scourge of plastics pollution.

It was adopted at the fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2) in Nairobi, attended virtually and in person by more than 5,000 people.

Its goal is to create a legally binding agreement by 2024. But work begins immediately on international cooperation to address the full lifecycle of plastics.

“With a timeline that is as ambitious as it is utterly necessary, I have tremendous hope that the potential of this commitment today can have a significant, far-reaching impact on what kind of planet we leave for the generations to come,” said Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator. “We stand by to support countries to address plastic pollution while improving human health and livelihoods and empowering local communities towards a shared resolution to end plastic pollution.”

The agreement comes not a moment too soon.

Even before COVID-19 we were besieged by the plastic we mostly use just once.

A recent UN report estimated that while 400 million tonnes of plastic are produced every year, only 9 percent is recycled. The rest is thrown away.

Except there is no ‘away’.

From the depths of the Mariana Trench to the top of Mount Everest, plastic is literally everywhere. It’s estimated that between 5 million and 13 million metric tonnes enter the ocean every year.

Continuing down this path will mean a ten-fold increase in plastics pollution by 2025. And the ocean will bear the brunt.

“In recent years, as our understanding of the issue has grown, ocean plastics pollution has emerged as a major new threat to ocean health, joining nutrient pollution, overfishing, invasive species, habitat loss and climate change, which includes acidification, warming and deoxygenation as the most significant threats to ocean sustainability,” said Andrew Hudson, Head of the Water and Ocean Governance Programme at UNDP.

When COVID-19 first emerged and caused a major economic slowdown, the ocean enjoyed some near-term environmental benefits such as a decreased demand for seafood and less pollution from tourism.

But two years on, the extra demand for masks, and other single use personal protective equipment, syringes and test kits, have added to the avalanche of pollution.

Around 30 percent of healthcare facilities — and 60 percent in the least developed countries — can’t handle existing waste, let alone the extra generated by COVID-19.

According to an initial estimate of the scale of the problem, the World Health Organization has found that a joint UN emergency initiative of 87,000 tonnes of personal protective equipment would end mostly as waste. The initiative, which shipped 140 million tests kits generated a potential 2,600 tonnes of waste and 8 billion vaccine doses created 144,000 tonnes of waste.

But this is just a sliver of the picture. It doesn’t take into account the equipment bought outside of the initiative or waste generated by the public, such as disposable medical masks.

A number of landmark events take place this year to address the urgent and growing challenge to ocean health.

The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA), the decision-making body for the United Nations Environment Programme, has initiated a process to negotiate the first ever global treaty on plastics pollution. It aims to secure a clear mandate for a global plastics pollution legal framework.

UNDP is moderating a session on “Overcoming Overfishing” at the Economist World Ocean Summit, where industries, governments, conservation organizations and others are working towards the 2030 Agenda, with targets to restore ocean health and explore possibilities in aquaculture, ocean tourism, fishing and plastics reduction.

This will be followed in July by the 2022 UN Ocean Conference, in Portugal.

The chief aim is to combat marine pollution and recommit to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14, which is designed to protect life below water. Delegates will also address acidification and sustainable fishing, especially for small scale fishers.

“Several major ocean meetings in 2022 will help to build the collective momentum and political commitment to accelerate progress on SDG 14. Key to the success of these gatherings will be tangible new ocean actions and commitments from the smallest NGO to the biggest governments and companies,” Mr Hudson said.

In 2020, UNDP’s Ocean Innovation Challenge was established to support efforts by start-ups, NGOs and others to combat marine pollution, reduce overfishing and address other SDG 14 targets. The initiative fosters creative thinking all along the spectrum of ocean challenges. It has led to coolers made from coconut husks, which cuts down on polystyrene waste that ends up littering beaches, to reducing microplastics in one of the planet’s biggest polluters — fast fashion and mass-produced clothing.

Could 2022 be the year we turn the corner on ocean protection and restoration? The cost will be high, but not nearly as much as the cost of doing nothing.

UNDP estimates that the total cost of unsustainable ocean use, from pollution to overfishing to invasive species, is close to US$1 trillion a year. To achieve SDG 14, it is critical to invest in restoring and protecting marine ecosystems, to recapture the economic benefits, jobs, and food security that a healthy ocean can provide.

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