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Nations make historic commitment to tackle plastic pollution – Expert Reaction

The international community has agreed to end plastic pollution and draft a legally-binding treaty by 2024.

Overnight, New Zealand time, representatives from 175 nations at the UN Environment Assembly in Kenya endorsed the historic resolution. The legally-binding treaty is expected to reflect diverse alternatives to address the full lifecycle of plastics, the design of reusable and recyclable products and materials, and the need for enhanced international collaboration to facilitate access to technology, capacity building and scientific and technical cooperation.

A full text of the adopted resolution is available here.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the news. 

Associate Professor Trisia Farrelly, Political Ecology Research Centre, Massey University, comments:

“This is a historic moment that we have been building up to for years. The scope of the mandate is comprehensive and ambitious, and it will allow us to negotiate an effective and comprehensive treaty to end plastic pollution.

“The mandate is the first major leap in the right direction, but based on what we have seen at UN Environment Assembly to date, there will still be hard-fought negotiations ahead of us. We will need to continue to push for a final treaty that designs toxic chemicals out of the circular economy; upholds human rights; protects human and ecosystem health; values local and traditional knowledge; requires measurable and timebound targets to be met; and safeguards against false solutions and regrettable substitutes.

“The plastic pollution crisis has been recognised as one of the triple threats to our planet alongside climate change and biodiversity loss. The new treaty will need to treat each of these as threat multipliers and ensure that there is plenty of coordination, cooperation, and complementarity among regional and international agreements that cover all three threats.”

No conflict of interest.

Bodo Lang, PhD, Assistant Dean – External Engagement, and Associate Professor – Department of Marketing, University of Auckland Business School, comments:

“The UN resolution is a milestone on the issue of single-use plastics. The magnitude of change this resolution will be able to affect, however, depends on a number of factors, such as how far-reaching the agreed-to measures will be, what their timeframe is, whether countries, companies and individuals are able to make the desired changes, and, importantly, what the political and legal consequences are for non-compliance with the resolution.

“But why is such a resolution needed in the first place? Why don’t we resort to education and consumers making better choices to reduce the amount of single-use plastic? While consumer-led change can sometimes be effective in changing issues that are directly under their control, often it is not. In the case of single-use plastics, consumers have few alternatives to switch to. If there are no alternatives to switch to, what are consumers to do? Then there are other key drivers of consumer behaviour, such as ease of use and being fit for purpose. At present, consumers would find it difficult to satisfy these two drivers of purchase without, for example, purchasing products wrapped in single-use plastics. Because of these reasons, a consumer-led change on this issue is unlikely to be effective. This makes the UN resolution all the more important.

“Most behaviours exist in a system. Often, the best way to change the outcomes of that system, is to change the system itself. In this case, it is the alternatives that are offered to consumers that must change. Single-use plastic bags illustrate the point: Up to 1 July 2019, less than two years ago, these were the standard way for New Zealand shoppers to take their goods home. One change in the system, a ban on single-use plastic bags, and providing many attractive alternatives, has completely changed consumers behaviour in this regard.

“The UN resolution has the potential to entice countries and companies to use technology and consumer insights to change the outcomes of the current linear economy and thus reduce our reliance on single-use plastic. This includes both the purchase and the disposal of single-use plastics. If the UN resolution provides consumers with the right options to purchase and dispose of products and their packaging, then it will be a milestone decision in how we use single-use plastics.”

No conflicts of interest declared.

Dr Olga Pantos, Senior Scientist, Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR), comments:

“The outcome from UNEA5.2 of the resolution to develop the legally binding international agreement to stop plastic pollution is incredible. And so very important. Plastic pollution isn’t just about litter on the beach, and large mammals eating it. These are the issues we’re most exposed to but it is so much greater than this. Plastic pollution poses a risk to the environment at a scale similar to climate change, and it is also intimately entwined with climate change. Plastics pose a threat to environmental (all environments, not just the oceans) and human health throughout its lifecycle. It is therefore imperative that the whole lifecycle is addressed and this is what the proposed treaty will do.

“In many countries around the world, including here in Aotearoa New Zealand, people are shielded from the worst impacts of plastics, and just see the great convenience and versatility it brings. Both those conveniences are pushed on to others and the environment.

“Plastic waste and the microplastics and nanoplastics that result from their physical breakdown either during use or at the end of life has been found in all ecosystems and organisms tested so far. From the deepest ocean trenches, to remote mountain tops. Their effects range from physical damage, toxicity, disruption of microbial communities that drive critical biological processes, and there is an increasing body of evidence of the harm to human health.

“As part of the project I co-lead as part of my role at ESR (the MBIE-funded Aotearoa Impacts and Mitigation of Microplastics project), we have been looking at the presence of microplastics in aquatic and terrestrial systems, and we have been finding them. Lots of them, of all different plastic polymer types, sizes and morphologies. For example, we are seeing them in beach sands, and surface waters in remote regions of the country. We’re also identifying some of their sources, such as our wastewater.

“The levels of microplastics being found in the environment are just the tip of the iceberg. All those large plastic items that are currently out there are a potential source of micro- and nanoplastics. Once they are small it is near impossible to get them back out of the environment, and so it is imperative that we stop the plastics entering the environment early. Whilst the aim is to have the treaty completed by 2024 it is imperative that we as individuals and communities start making change now.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Kim Pickering, School of Engineering, University of Waikato, comments:

“It is good progress, but there is still much to be done and the stakes are high. Plastics can contribute to well-being if used appropriately. They can help minimise food waste and are the lightest of materials, reducing energy required for transportation, which is beneficial in the war against climate change. Re-use, redesign, recycling and compostability will all be important parts of the solution. Legislation would have a major role in providing a shift of benefit in use of recycled plastic, where appropriate in products.

“Currently, much of the price tab of using virgin plastic is being picked up further down the chain at end of life of its products. There is also need for developments of plastics including those from renewable resources and ensuring they are fit for purpose and for products where compostability is the best solution, ensuring that they break down benignly. We need to make sure we use the right options for different product types and keep these materials within controlled loops rather than allowing them to ‘escape to the wild’. Part of this in New Zealand is once again the team of five million. Having seen people throw plastics out of car windows and the detritus that is building up road sides shows that behaviour shift could go a long way to reducing the impact straight away.

“I didn’t see this mentioned but on top of the other ways of potential damage to health from plastics, there has been indication that plastics can also contribute as ‘vectors of disease’ effectively providing transport for viruses as they travel across oceans.”

No conflict of interest.