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essays

Inside the Plastic Problem at the United Nations

by Alexis McGivern
January 15, 2019

Alexis has been championing low-plastic living since 2013. She previously worked on plastic pollution policy solutions for the International Union for Conservation of Nature and is currently conducting research with the Plastic Pollution Emissions Working Group. 

Few environmental issues have captured the cultural zeitgeist like plastic pollution. Its effects are visible, its victims widespread, and its solutions are (relatively) clear and uncomplicated: we must drastically reduce the amount of plastic we are producing, using and throwing away, so as to give ourselves a fighting chance to tackle this global problem. In recent years, plastic pollution has morphed from a largely local and grassroots issue into one that is being discussed by the international community at the highest level: the United Nations. In a recent meeting of member states and experts, global politics played out in a small room in Geneva, demonstrating why solving this issue is frustratingly complicated.

The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) is the world’s highest-level decision-making body on the environment. Created in 2012, this assembly meets every two years in order to discuss and set priorities for sustainability action for all participating stakeholders. These include but are not limited to member states, UN agencies, accredited NGO members, technical experts, business and industry representatives, indigenous peoples and youth groups. At the third meeting of the UNEA, over 200 states adopted a resolution establishing a process for ongoing coordinated international action to combat marine litter and microplastics, creating the Ad Hoc Open Ended Expert Group on Marine Litter and Microplastics (also affectionately known as AHOEEG). This group was tasked with investigating three possible pathways for member states to agree upon at the UN:

  • Option 1: Maintain the status quo
  • Option 2: Revise and strengthen existing international frameworks and multilateral environmental agreements to address plastic pollution
  • Option 3: Create a new global architecture with a multi-layered governance approach.

An almost 200 page report identified key issues to overcome, including the lack of an institutional mandate to stem the issue upstream, especially a mandate to reduce production, a lack of global standards for national monitoring on consumption, use, final treatment and trade, of plastic, and the poor application of due diligence and polluter pays principles when it comes to collecting and properly managing plastic waste. It’s worth noting that all member states agreed that option 1 is not viable, but the question is how does this move from just words into genuine and worthwhile commitments?

During a whirlwind week at the UN attending the AHOEEG, it was fascinating to see the dynamics of developing and developed countries, public and private sector, activists and politicians and many other stakeholders play out within a microcosm of the globe. In order to solve plastic pollution, we need delicately coordinated global action – this much is certain and (mostly) agreed upon by all stakeholders involved.

The delicate part comes in, as it does with all major environmental issues, in identifying a solution that is more than just the lowest common denominator.

What are the main issues that hamper more effective global action on this issue?

Finding common ground

With environmental issues, everything can be contentious: including the terminology you use to refer to an issue. There was debate among players at the UN over the term “marine litter”, which many developing states and NGO stakeholders argued implies the only issue with plastic is when it is mismanaged and ends up in marine environments. This narrow definition limits the scope of discussion (and potential solutions for the problem) and excludes the many other non-marine related impacts of plastic, including on human health. However, widening the scope also vastly narrows your ability to reach consensus among players, which made some NGO players reluctant to include the full force of issues related to plastic pollution.

Lack of transparency

Plastic pollution is an environmental issue plagued by a lack of transparency at every turn. There is limited information shared on what chemicals even make up different plastic items, with industry tightly controlling the list of ingredients and additives in products under the guise of protecting trade secrets.  There is limited transparency on the genuine effectiveness of solutions, leading to greenwashing solutions like recycling to take centre stage. There is a lack of transparency from developed countries over how and where they are shipping their waste, and how that affects people on the other end. There is a great deal of mystery over how much business and industry directly influence political opinion on these issues: it seems that they have politicians’ ears once they start discussing selection of factory locations, bringing economic prosperity at the cost of human health and environmental damage, or even directly through funding of political campaigns.

This influence was painfully evident in Geneva, with many delegates from G7 countries openly huddling with business and industry players during coffee and lunch breaks over the five days at the UN.

Without transparency, it is impossible to meaningfully assess what action can and should be taken by different stakeholders.

Mismatched will

Over and over again, wealthy developed nations pushed hard for action to be centred around the Global Partnership on Marine Litter, a non-binding partnership to bring stakeholders together to implement global solutions to plastic pollution, instead of a global and legally binding convention. As if reading from the same script, many asserted that we do not have enough data yet to make binding agreements, and that we need better understanding along the whole life chain in order to set relevant reduction targets based on different litter types. In fact, almost two days of the meeting was taken up by a listing of data and methodology gaps that need to be addressed. This was opposed by the many and increasingly impassioned interventions by delegates from developing nations and NGO players, framing this issue within the context of environmental justice and calling to implement the precautionary and polluter pays principles. Many delegates from developing nations shared personal anecdotes of how they have seen plastic pollution affect their nation: from a Togolese delegate recounting the gradual decline in subsistence fisheries over the years due to an increasing amount of fish being trapped in abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear, to a Peruvian delegate sharing the national campaign to rid their national dish “ceviche” of plastic particles. 

These personal recollections showed just how raw this issue is for developing states: it’s not limited to donning a suit and showing up in Geneva for a week of discussions, it is a daily and growing threat to their state, their environment and their people.

What’s next?

The draft recommendations pulled together by the expert group will be discussed and agreed upon at UNEA4, held at UN Environment’s headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya in March of this year. Ahead of this meeting, many member states called for an assessment of the potential secondary impacts of proposed solutions in order to ensure that we are not creating more and increasingly complex environmental problems in trying to fix this one, such as the increased carbon footprint of substitutes like glass, the difficulty of getting “biodegradable” plastics to industrial composting facilities and ensuring that solutions like higher taxation of plastic do not simply create a black market while affecting poor and vulnerable populations. The division on this issue was palpable at all levels, but waiting to act for scientific certainty or giving deference to business and industry powers is a sure way to limit meaningful steps towards mitigating this problem.