The EU and UN Environment held a high-level event featuring countries’ latest plans for addressing plastic pollution.
The side event served as the launch of UNEP’s Global Plastics Platform, which will support countries and cities in establishing policies to reduce plastic pollution.
25 September 2018: The EU and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP, or UN Environment) held a high-level event on the theme, ‘Fighting Plastic Pollution: A Global Race to the Top,’ featuring countries’ latest plans for addressing plastic pollution. The side event served as the launch of UNEP’s Global Plastics Platform, which will encourage and support commitments to reduce plastic pollution.
Frans Timmermans, European Commission, opened the event held at UN Headquarters in New York, US, on 25 September 2018. He said plastic pollution has gained widespread attention, but regulation is still needed. Referring to the European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy, adopted in early 2018, he said the EU plans to make plastics more circular and to ban them where there are feasible consumer alternatives.
Marine biologist Sylvia Earle urged participants to “rethink the whole problem of single-use, throwaway goods,” as recycling “only marks the start of another problem.”
Erik Solheim, UN Environment Executive Director, said the economic threat of plastic pollution can become an opportunity. He said UN Environment has established a Global Plastics Platform, which will support countries and cities in establishing policies to reduce plastic pollution. UN Environment notes that in 2018, a number of countries announced plans to ban single-use plastics: India said it will ban all single-use plastic by 2022; Botswana, Chile and Peru announced plastic bag bans; Nigeria revealed plans to establish recycling plants across the country; and Brazil announced a national plan on plastics.
In addition to policy support, the Platform will explore ways to change the design, production, consumption and disposal of plastics around the world, in line with a transition to a more circular economy. UN Environment reports that such efforts will include identifying opportunities to reduce economic and industrial waste. The Platform will build on and advance the World Economic Forum-hosted Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy, the work of the Regional Seas Conventions, and other existing initiatives and partnerships.
UNGA’s 73rd session will be “decisive” in the international community’s ability to reach SDG targets on oceans, climate and biodiversity by 2020.
Susan Goldberg, National Geographic, moderated a panel with heads of state and ministers from Aruba, Canada, Colombia, Iceland, Norway and Rwanda, as well as business leaders in retail and waste management. Officials from other countries spoke from the floor. Speakers highlighted several commitments, policies and initiatives, including on single-use plastics:
- Aruba will ban all single-use plastics by 2020, following its 2016 ban on single-use plastic bags;
- Spain will ban plastic bags in 2021;
- Rwanda has drafted a law banning single-use plastics, following its 2008 ban on plastic bags;
- Norway is considering a ban on single-use plastics in coordination with the EU;
- Kenya is working with the East African Community to extend its plastic bag ban to other countries;
- Sweden and Costa Rica are working to reduce single-use plastics at the UN and in its missions, including through sustainable procurement practices;
- Costa Rica has a national strategy to replace single-use plastics with renewable and combustible alternatives; and
- Iceland places a recycling fee on plastic goods.
Canada banned the sale of microbeads in 2018, and Iceland is developing a policy on microplastics. Norway is establishing a producer responsibility scheme for discarded fishing gear. In Iceland, discarded fishing gear can be traced to its owner.
Colombia is implementing a strategy for packaging and packaging waste. The country expects to make use of 30% of its waste by 2030, and is managing waste through public-private partnerships (PPPs). The world’s fourth largest retailer, the Schwarz Group, is developing a strategy to reduce and recycle all of its packaging. Spain is finalizing a circular economy strategy called España Circular 2030, which will include plastic pollution measures.
In addition, Norway launched a High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy on 24 September 2018, which will report in 2020. Norway also provided the initial pledge to the World Bank’s PROBLUE fund to support healthy and productive oceans, including by tackling marine pollution.
Almost all speakers underlined the need to engage the public and key stakeholders in order for the policies to succeed. Aruba’s Prime Minister noted that people resisted the 2016 ban on plastic bags, because the government had not worked to raise awareness before the policy change. She said that in preparation for the 2020 ban, officials have involved stakeholders to ensure that “people are begging for the decision.” Norway’s climate and environment minister said the government must involve the fishing industry in order to better control illegal discarding of fishing gear and waste at sea. Canada’s environment minister said that once the public learned about microbeads in everyday products, they agreed that it was a problem.
Suez, a leading waste and water management company, said 93% of plastic products use virgin materials, and encouraged increasing the amount of recycled plastic. France also called for businesses to include recycled plastics in their products, and said France will build on Canada’s work on plastics pollution as the Group of 7 (G7) president. In June 2018, the Ocean Plastics Charter was endorsed at the Canada-hosted G7 Summit by the EU, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and the UK.
Canada noted that even with Canada being “good at recycling,” the rate is only 11%, so the chemicals industry has a role to play in finding “leapfrog solutions.” The UK noted the launch in partnership with Canada of a PPP, the Global Plastics Action Partnership. She called on companies such as Suez to make it easier to recycle plastic waste.
Sweden said it is spending US$10 million per year until 2020 to cover municipalities’ costs for cleanup, promote innovation to combat microplastic pollution, and reduce discarded fishing gear. Sweden also established a government inquiry on possible measures to “go beyond EU legislation” on marine pollution. She highlighted the UN Environment Assembly’s (UNEA) Ad Hoc Open Ended Expert Group to identify options for combating marine litter for consideration by UNEA-4, noting the need for stronger global and regional architecture on the issue. The Union for the Mediterranean said it is working to identify marine litter hotspots in the Mediterranean region.
Turning to the local level, the mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone, highlighted the health consequences of uncollected waste. She said Freetown’s approach will include: getting collection systems working, which needs investment; starting a recycling system and encouraging more businesses to join the sector; innovation and competition for clearing waste and fighting plastic; and joining the move to ban single-use plastic.
The Office of UNGA President Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces said the UNGA President will launch a global campaign and call to action to address plastic waste “once and for all.” She observed that the UNGA’s 73rd session will be “decisive” in the international community’s ability to reach SDG targets on oceans, climate and biodiversity by 2020. [Meeting webcast] [Remarks by Frans Timmermans, European Commission] [UN Environment Press Release] [SDG Knowledge Hub Story on Plastic Bans Around the World] [SDG Knowledge Hub Sources]
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Catherine Benson Wahlén contributed reporting to this story.