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UN agencies at COP27 urge action to tackle impact of plastic on climate

11 November 2022

Plastic waste has become a key driver of pollution across the world, overwhelming marine, terrestrial and aerial ecosystems.

© Shutterstock/Fotos593 | Plastic waste washes ashore near the Panama Canal.

Prominent representatives from the UN system met during the 2022 UN climate summit (COP27) on 10 November to shed light on the often-overlooked but nonetheless crucial link between plastic waste and climate change-inducing carbon emissions.

The event entitled “How combatting plastic pollution and illegal traffic in plastic waste can help reduce carbon emissions” addressed ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by combating plastic pollution and illegal traffic in plastic waste.

It was co-organized by UNCTAD, the Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions (BRS Secretariat), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

“Today’s event serves as an example of UN entities joining forces to deliver targeted policy advice and effective technical assistance to member states,” UNODC Executive Director Ghada Waly said.

She added that international cooperation is especially important with respect to carrying out trade route investigations and mutual legal assistance, which can help disrupt the cross-border flow of illegal plastic waste.

Plastic pollution is a global crisis

Approximately 75% of all plastic produced in the world eventually becomes waste, which is particularly disconcerting if one bears in mind that plastics are petroleum-based and often illegally burned for disposal.

Seychelles is suffocating from illegal dumping and illegal burning of plastic as part of ‘recycling’ schemes. “The illegal trade, dumping and uncontrolled incineration of plastics is negatively affecting the pristine Seychellois ecosystem,” said Flavien Joubert, the country’s environment minister, who laid out a plan to prioritize the use of glass on the islands.

Illegal movement of plastic is on the rise. Key solutions that are in progress include: international cooperation and partnerships across countries and UN agencies, specifically on plastic pollution; increased law enforcement to tackle illegal plastic waste; and the development of alternative materials like glass.

In the same vein, Achmad Gunawan Witjaksono, a director in Indonesia’s environment ministry, announced the development of a new national policy that will serve as the country’s roadmap to prevent the import of hazardous and contaminated plastic waste.

“Local problems can only be resolved by the implementation of global agreements,” said Ecuador’s environment minister, Gustavo Manrique. As a case in point, he revealed that even though Ecuador has successfully established a national circular economy law, 83% of the plastic waste reaching its shores arrives from other countries.

The Commonwealth Secretariat’s head of oceans and natural resources, Nicholas Hardman Mountford, echoed the sentiment on the importance of global cooperation. He referred to actions taken by the 56 Commonwealth countries to combat plastic pollution, including through the Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance, which tackles plastic waste in marine ecosystems. “The future economy is waste-free, circular and net-zero,” he said.

‘The future is plastic substitutes’

The world should embrace reusable, biodegradable and compostable plastic substitutes, said Miho Shirotori, UNCTAD’s officer-in-charge for the division on international trade and commodities.

Ms. Shirotori underlined that “trade policy can support a transition to plastic alternatives by adjusting tariff and non-tariff measures. The future is not plastic. The future is plastic substitutes, and trade can help in the transition.”

“Trade has too often been the missing link when tackling environmental challenges,” said Aik Hoe Lim, director of trade and environment at the World Trade Organization (WTO). He said WTO is currently mapping out possible trade measures governments can take to address plastic pollution.

Multilateral agreements offer path to address crisis

Multilateral environmental agreements have a decisive role to play in defining what constitutes legal and illegal traffic of waste. “Before the Basel Convention Plastic Waste Amendments entered into force in 2021, countries had been facing a tsunami of plastic waste imports, which they had no real say in managing,” said Carlos Martin-Novella, the deputy executive secretary of BRS Conventions.

The Plastic Waste Amendments legally bind the 190 parties to the Basel Convention to a strict control procedure with respect to the transboundary movement of problematic plastic wastes.

They are a stepping stone towards ending plastic pollution, a goal supported by the historic resolution to establish an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, adopted during the fifth UN Environment Assembly.

“Dealing with plastic pollution serves as an opportunity for societies to shift to circular economies, thereby addressing all three planetary crises: climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss,” said Susan Gardner, UNEP’s director of ecosystems.

Speakers from governments and international organizations at the event entitled
“How combatting plastic pollution and illegal traffic in plastic waste can help reduce carbon emissions”.