Image Credit: Shutterstock

Early March 2022, the gavel came down at the closing session of the fifth UN’s Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2) meeting in Nairobi on a historic new resolution to stop the flow of plastic pollution into nature.

Heads of State, Ministers of environment and other representatives from 175 nations endorsed a historic resolution, calling for a legally binding treaty by 2024 addressing the full life cycle of plastic including its production, design and disposal.

It is expected that this legally binding instrument would reflect diverse alternatives to address the full life cycle 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.

So, the plastic treaty, when ratified, will be a significant landmark in multinational environmental governance on the lines of the Montreal Protocol and the Paris Climate Agreement.

Changing attitude

Plastic wastes not only pollute our terrestrial biodiversity but according to UN, some 11 million tonnes of plastic waste flow annually into oceans polluting and destroying marine biodiversity.

Currently, the overwhelming majority of plastic products aren’t biodegradable. As such the plastic in use today is likely to stick around for thousands of years, posing a threat to the lives of animals, aquatic organisms and humans alike.

On one hand, to a great extent, one can easily realise that, the plastic usage is mainly a human attitude problem as we have, currently, many other environment-friendly alternatives for plastic bags in the market such as cloth, cotton or linen bags. Thus, changing human attitude and behaviour about being addicted to usage of plastic products is essential.

On the other hand, one must say that plastic products are very essential to our modern life as they are used in many industries. So, it is very important to focus plastic usage only in vital industries such as cars, planes and electrical power. But there is no point in using them for packing and grocery purposes, for example.

Way Forward

With UNEA-5.2 resolution, humankind just started the journey to end plastic pollution by establishing an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) with a mandate to negotiate a new legally binding global agreement to address pollution from plastics in all environments and in all forms.

Such an agreement should include time-targeted, measurable, and binding commitments with effective enforcement mechanisms and be based on human rights and full enforcement of the polluter and user pays principle. The mandate for the INC should address the health, human rights, climate impacts of plastic pollution and its relation to Sustainable Development Goals.

False Solutions

Recycling alone, as some voices call, will not solve the plastic crisis. It is important to take note of and avoid false solutions to the plastics crisis, including false claims of recyclability, bio-based or biodegradable plastics, or chemical recycling.

On the contrary, encouraging recycling as solution to plastic crisis will support more and more production of plastic products as long as it goes to recycling plants. In fact, one can accept plastic recycling as a temporarily solution until we move towards a plastic free world.

It is worth mentioning that the work of the INC must ensure the full engagement of all relevant stakeholders. This is a key for its success as the negotiations need to include those communities most harmed by plastic pollution along its life cycle, indigenous peoples, scientific community, women, business associations, workers and trade unions and civil society’s organisations.

In GCC countries and especially UAE, since early 2009, there have been many initiatives to limit plastic usage especially single-use plastics. The Ministry of Climate Change and the Environment in UAE, in cooperation with a number of federal and local government agencies and private sector organisations, has launched the ‘Responsible Consumption for a Sustainable Future’ campaign a few years to raise awareness on how to optimise plastic products.

The campaign slogan, ‘Together to Protect Our Environment with Optimal Use of Plastics’ aims to raise awareness and change behaviours that institutions and individuals must follow to rationalise, recycle and reuse plastic products.

There is no doubt that, this resolution will clearly take us towards a better future with no plastic pollution.

Dr Mohamed Abdelraouf is an independent environment researcher