World leaders set sights on plastic pollution

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For the better part of five decades, plastic has been pouring into the world’s oceans, poisoning marine life, sullying beaches and, infamously, feeding a garbage patch that’s bigger than France.

But later this month, the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) is expected to take the first steps toward the creation of a landmark treaty to control plastic pollution worldwide.

At UNEA, the world’s highest-level decision-making body on the environment, negotiators are scheduled to debate proposals for legally binding rules on the use and disposal of plastic.

The move is part of a larger global effort to stem the tide of plastic pollution. Every year, an estimated 11 million tonnes of plastic enter the world’s oceans, according to a recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), From Pollution to Solution.

Approximately 300 million tonnes of plastic waste (an amount equivalent to the weight of the human population) are produced every year. However, only 9 per cent is recycled; the vast majority of the rest accumulates in landfills or the natural environment. Over time, these materials break down into microplastics that ease additional pollutants into the human food chain, freshwater systems, and air.

Since the 1950s, the rate of plastic production has grown faster than that of any other material. There has also been a shift away from the production of durable plastic and towards single-use plastics.

Up until now, the Basel Convention has been the only global, legally binding instrument that addresses plastic pollution. It regulates the transboundary movement of plastic waste and commits countries to better-managing plastic pollution.

As part of the Basel Convention, states launched in 2019 the Partnership on Plastic Waste, which has financed 23 projects designed to prevent plastic pollution and encourage businesses and states to re-use plastic products. Those initiatives include efforts to limit ocean pollution in Cameroon, bolster recycling in Thailand, and discourage restaurants in China from using single-use plastic takeout containers.

The partnership counts half the world’s governments among its members, said Ross Bartley, Trade and Environment Director of the Bureau of International Recycling. However, more participants are needed to “make inroads to effectively minimize the generation of plastic wastes and bring them under environmentally sound management,” he said.

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