How to implement Global Plastics Treaty locally

March 2nd 2022 was a historic moment in international environmental politics. The UN countries decided to create a legally binding Global Plastics Treaty at the UN Environmental Assembly (known as UNEA 5.2) in Nairobi, Kenya. It was historic in the sense that for the first time UNEA took the decision to start creating a global legally-binding treaty and the fact that plastic pollution was recognised not just as a litter issue in the oceans, but a problem at all stages of the production process, starting with the oil extraction. You can read more about the Plastics Treaty importance here and here.

Just few hours before the official decision, we held a hybrid discussion event in Nairobi and online, dedicated to the question: how can we support the implementation of this treaty on local level in years to come? The recording of the event is also visible in our youtube channel. The summary of the event follows.

The event was opened by Kaupo Heinma, the deputy secretary general of Estonian Ministry of Environment, who reminded that the main problem with plastics is in how we use it only once. The following three keynote speakers talked about the plastics issue from different angles.

Janez Potočnik, the co-chair of UNEP’s International Resource Panel put the emphasis on the growing consumption of plastics, which results both in increasing use of natural resources as well as production of (plastic) waste. He shared the examples from EU policy work: from reducing the use of plastic bags to making recycling profitable and restricting single use plastics. He called for systemic changes that would limit our use of plastic in the first place – global agreements are vital here.

Jane Patton, plastics and petrochemicals campaign manager at Center for International Environmental Law pointed out how (i) the decision on global governance on plastics; and (ii) not looking it only as a marine litter issue is a huge milestone.
Something that was thought as impossible five years ago, when she started working on it. She also stressed that the real work is just about to begin, especially also on implementation on national and local level. Since she lives in Louisiana, US – an area heavily impacted by the petrochemical industry – she also stressed the need to tackle full life-cycle of the plastics, especially the production.

Ana Rocha, executive director at Tanzanian NGO Nige Fagio brought in the local context from Global South, where even basic waste management infrastructure could be missing. She shared the work they have been doing in waste and brand audits (which you can read more about in depth here). She also stressed the need for companies to take responsibility for the plastic products and their afterlife, for example through Extended Producer Responsibility scheme. International corporations making plastic packaging products are wealthier than many countries in the Global South. Yet, they leave it for poor countries to manage waste from their products. Ana’s slides can be seen here.

The keynotes were followed by group discussions both on-site and online. Questions focused on what should be the next steps on local level for the plastics treaty and what is needed for that? From all the groups, these main points came out:

  • The treaty needs to be taken to the local level and made understandable for general public – why it’s a problem and what kind of solutions do we need. There is still a need for wider understanding of the impacts of plastic pollution, especially by people working directly with plastic waste.
  • The treaty should also be used to push governments to act. We need to make policy makers accountable – legally if needed, put in place the necessary laws and enforce them. The producers need to be made accountable for their products, for example through Extended Producer Responsibility scheme. Taxation could be used to regulate the production more in favour of reusables and using less plastic.
  • Funds are needed to make things happen on the local level, to develop innovative solutions.
  • As active citizens working on this, we should also share our experiences on what actions and policies have worked.
  • Governments need to change the mentality to accept solutions that are tailored for the communities that they serve.
  • Need to unlock traditional knowledge and skills – what did we do before plastic was widespread?
  • Implement more reuse, refill, bulk shopping – reuse also creates green jobs. We also need to think more about the lifespan of the products and packages, not just only the material – how long can we keep different packages in circulation?
  • Certain single use plastic items need to be banned.
  • Solutions need to be standardized.
  • There was also mentioning of degrowth economy – we need to think about reducing our production and consumption patterns.
  • Gender plays a role – women tend to embrace the zero waste lifestyle more, and are more impacted by the negative impacts of plastic pollution.
  • Local governments are the ones who can implement locally fitting innovations and solutions. Local governments are also seen as the link between global policies and local implementation and they should be supported to take action.

A nice thought was shared in the summary round: be optimistic, because at least we know one thing – optimistic people live longer. Many of the participants felt that we should all do what we can, because it does matter. If you wish to get more involved and organised, the global Break Free From Plastic movement is just the place to get started.

Altogether around 60 people from Europe, Africa, Asia and America took part of the event on-site and online.

This event was organized with the support from the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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