Manage or turn off the tap: international law to end plastic pollution

A wide variety of polymers were used after World War II. These were developed by the chemical industry during the war and continued to be used thereafter. For their discoveries in the field of high polymer chemistry and technology, Karl Ziegler and Giulio Natta received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1963. Soon after, the introduction of Celloplast’s one-piece polyethylene shopping bag in 1965lead to the growth of single-use disposable plastics that accounts for about 40% of plastic produced each year. World production of plastic has increased from 15 million tons in 1964 to 348 million tons in 2017.

At the recent United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2), given the high and rapidly increasing levels of plastic pollution and the need to prevent plastic pollution and its related risks to human health and adverse effects on the environment, 175 countries resolved set up an intergovernmental negotiation committee (INC). The INC, which begins work later this year, is tasked with drafting an international legally binding instrument by the end of 2024 that will guide international action to end plastic pollution.

Globally, plastic production amounts to approximately 400 million tons, and could double by 2040. Since the beginning of plastic production in the 20th century, until 2015, only about 9% of plastic waste generated was recycled and 12% incinerated, the balance of 79% accumulated in landfills or in the natural environment. The plastic has seeped into all parts of the ocean, 95% of which are outside national jurisdiction. On 11 million tons of plastic is dumped into the ocean each year, and this figure is expected to double by 2030 and almost triple by 2040.

The INC, which begins work later this year, is tasked with drafting an international legally binding instrument by the end of 2024 that will guide international action to end plastic pollution.

About half a century earlier, Olof Palme, in 1972, had called for urgent and concerted international action to combat the growing pollution of the seas. However, it was not until the description of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Gyre by the oceanographer Charles Moore in 1997, which brought global attention to the magnitude of the marine litter problem. The North Pacific Gyre is one of the most remote regions of the ocean, but instead of a pristine ocean, Moore witnessed plastic debris for the roughly week-long duration that it took him to cross the subtropical anticyclone – a wind-driven ocean system. currents.

A legally binding international instrument by 2024 to end plastic pollution is badly needed, but it could be too little, too late. Following the tone and language of the Paris Agreementthe UNEA draft resolution highlights national circumstances and abilities. It recognizes the evidence that each country is best placed to understand its own national situation and the activities of its stakeholders. It recognizes that the legal obligations arising from the proposed international legally binding instrument will require capacity building and technical and financial assistance to be effectively implemented by developing countries and countries with economies in transition. Based on the collective articulation, the trajectory and fate of the new instrument, looks would not be different from that of the Paris Agreement; broad acceptance but individual inaction or, at best, actions disproportionate to the scale and urgency of the challenge.

It recognizes that the legal obligations arising from the proposed international legally binding instrument will require capacity building and technical and financial assistance to be effectively implemented by developing countries and countries with economies in transition.

To address the challenge of plastic pollution, the East African countries of Rwanda and Kenya have shown that it does not take technical and financial assistance to turn off the problematic tap. When Rwanda implemented a ban on plastic bags in 2008, he was even lower in the HDI ranking at 167th place. India is ranked higher on the HDI ranking at 131 with a gross national income per capita of 6,681, but the implementation of similar bans continues to be delayed despite being announced several times, and India is no exception. Literature suggests that implementation delays and policy reversals are due to the market power of domestic plastics industries emanating from economic contribution and employment. According to another study, countries that are able to successfully ban plastic bags and single-use plastics do not have a strong plastics industry or depend on service-based growth, especially where nature tourism is a key element in the growth of the service sector. “Given the outward-dependent nature of services-based growth (and particularly tourism), countries often compete with each other for foreign capital and tourists.” Then there are countries like Thailand that thrive on tourism, which grew by 7.5% in 2018—and on manufacturing and exports (7.2% growth in 2018), and is among the top five contributors to marine plastic pollution in the world. Turning off the tap is harder than it looks.

India is ranked higher on the HDI ranking at 131 with a gross national income per capita of 6,681, but the implementation of similar bans continues to be delayed despite being announced several times, and India is no exception.

While the INC has the ability to specify the goals of the instrument and is expected to cover the full range, from production to eliminating and reducing the plastic leakage that currently exists in the global ecosystem, it should focus on refrain from suggesting financial aid. Finances take center stage and little action is actually taken, as evidenced by the deliberations and pace of action under the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement. Rather, the suggestion to nations should be that those who can afford it should invest in improved waste management systems to ensure that much of it can be reused or recycled, and those who cannot to make this investment must turn off the tap by phasing out problematic plastic items.

The article was first published on ORF

(The study was authored by namitra Anurag Danda, Senior Visiting Researcher in ORF’s Energy and Climate Change Programme.)

Bryce K. Locke