Manta ray swimming with plastic © WWF / Vincent Kneefel

Manta ray swimming with plastic © WWF / Vincent Kneefel

Governments agree we need a plastic pollution treaty - but how do we get there?

01 Mar 2022

Keywords
  • plastic
  • marine pollution
  • climate change
  • threatened species

By Kate Noble
No Plastics in Nature Policy Manager, WWF-Australia

This week we saw a win for people and wildlife as United Nations member states agreed to start work on a global plastic pollution treaty when they met in Nairobi for the fifth UN Environment Assembly, the world’s highest-level decision-making body on the environment.

This watershed decision to start negotiations puts us at a crossroads in history when ambitious decisions taken today can prevent plastic pollution from contributing to our planet’s ecosystem collapse.

The Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme has called it the most important global environmental governance decision since the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2015.

I am so proud to be part of this moment that has been over a decade in the making. While the work is far from over, this decision to move forward towards a treaty is an incredible achievement.


So how did we get here?

WWF has been campaigning for a plastic pollution treaty for around five years.

In that time, more than 2.2 million people have called on global governments to start work on a treaty immediately. Recent research shows nearly nine in 10 people across 28 countries (including Australia) think a treaty is important.

Our work is based on clear and growing evidence of the plastic pollution crisis, as well as overwhelming support from our supporters and business partners around the world who want plastic pollution stopped.

Governments have now responded to public demand - and the science - to take meaningful action to reduce plastic production, consumption and pollution.

What does the UN decision actually mean?

This week’s decision will establish an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee and its mandate to develop an internationally legally binding instrument to stop plastic pollution. Put simply, this sets up the organising body and the process for developing a plastics treaty.

It also flags how broad the treaty discussions should be and some of the principles on which they should be based.

One of the key issues for campaigners, researchers and people around the world who care deeply about reducing plastic pollution is ensuring that a treaty doesn’t just tackle plastic waste. Waste is an important but small part of the problem.

Governments have now agreed that the treaty should consider actions across the whole lifecycle of plastic, from extraction of materials and production to product design and use, as well as waste management.

Plastic production and improper management is also a major contributor to climate change. With the IPCC report released this week warning of the impacts of the climate on our future and advising that action must be taken now, his step towards a treaty is a big step forwards for our environment and climate.

The new agreement will be legally binding, at least in part. That means that when countries sign up to join the treaty, they’re agreeing to be legally accountable for achieving certain targets or fulfilling obligations.

That was also a hard-fought win - not all governments were keen on this level of ambition.

India argued strongly for a voluntary framework, and others had to be convinced. The world has enough voluntary agreements and plans on plastic pollution that aren’t working - a global approach with common rules, standards and obligations for all countries is needed.

What happens next?

The aim is to finalise the agreed treaty within two years. This is an ambitious time frame, which many governments pushed because plastic pollution is such an urgent issue. Treaty development processes often take much longer.

While this week’s decision was a major milestone, the negotiation process will be hard work. WWF will be there to ensure the final treaty is ambitious and comprehensive enough to make a difference, holding governments to account for their promise to stop plastic pollution.

Ongoing support of people from around the world will be just as critical. Keeping up the pressure on governments, and making changes in our own lives and communities, will help keep the global community’s eyes on the end game of stopping plastic pollution.

How to take action in our everyday lives?

We can help tackle the plastic pollution crisis by taking action in our everyday lives, including reducing the amount of plastic waste entering our oceans.

• 11 Plastic Free Eco-Friendly Swaps
• Pick up plastic waste when you see it. Going for a walk or run - keep an eye out for any plastic and pick it up as you go.
• Stay informed. Sign up to WWF’s e-newsletter to learn more about plastic, as well as sharing information with your friends and family about plastic waste and climate change, how plastic pollution is killing sea turtles and more.

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