Last week in Nairobi, Kenya, the United Nations Environmental Assembly agreed to a mandate for the discussion of a legally binding treaty for plastic. This mandate provides the guidelines for the treaty making process.
The proposed treaty will address the full life of plastic products from production to disposal. The contract is to be drawn up by an International Negotiating Committee (INC) and ratified within the next two years.
If this treaty mandate becomes fully realized, it will be one of the most important international environmental laws in history, along with the Paris Climate Agreement.
The treaty mandate also reflects many of the demands called for by civil society groups, scientists and environmental non-profits. One of the non-profits pushing for legal changes to how we deal with plastics is the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA).
The mandate calls for tackling the problem of all plastic garbage in any environment, stepping away from an early draft that only included the severely limited “marine plastics.” The treaty should be legally binding, allowing for additional voluntary actions. It would also have technical and financial support, the details of which are still to be specified.
An important detail of the mandate is that it plans to tackle plastic from the beginning of production, not just after it becomes trash. This means slowing a quickly ballooning plastic creation industry. Plastic is set to increase four fold by 2050, while using up to 13 percent of global carbon budgets.
“It is promising that the mandate will look at plastic across its entire life cycle, shifting us away from problematic end-of-pipe interventions like waste incineration, and instead addressing the issue further upstream, in its production phase,” stated Niven Reddy, GAIA Africa Coordinator. “This milestone could not have happened without a global movement pushing decision makers every step of the way.”
Another promising aspect of the treaty mandate is the inclusion of waste pickers as stakeholders. This is a hopeful step towards environmental justice for some of the world’s most disempowered people.
Moving forward, advocates for change will need to stay vigilant against misleading insertions from plastic industries, which could water down the proposed international law and slow change necessary to maintain global environmental health.