UN agrees on resolution to combat ‘planetary crisis’ of ocean plastics

A pilot whale carries the dead body of its calf. Wildlife experts believe that it was poisoned by the plastic content of its mother's milk. [BBC]

UN delegates at an environment summit in Kenya agreed on Wednesday (6 December) a new non-binding resolution intended to stop plastic waste from finding its way into the world’s oceans.

The agreement acknowledged at a political level the threat posed by plastic pollution and gets the ball rolling on a number of measures, including the formation of an international task force that will advise countries how to combat pollution.

But the resolution is not legally binding and does not establish a clear timetable as countries led by the United States refused to support specific international goals or targets.

Before the resolution was formally adopted at a plenary session on Wednesday afternoon, UN ocean chief Lisa Svensson branded the problem of plastic contamination a “planetary crisis”.

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Ministers and other delegates met within the framework of UN Environment’s biennial summit in Nairobi, which this year was geared towards the dangers caused by pollution.

UN officials were keen to stress from the very beginning of the meeting that this year’s incarnation was intended to act as a starting point for an international concerted effort against pollution but that no legally-binding instruments like conventions would be agreed at this stage.

Spokesman Sam Barratt told reporters that “of course we would like to have gone further but this meeting’s made real progress”, adding that there is now a “sense of urgency and energy behind the issue”.

UN Environment boss Erik Solheim told the closing press conference that the summit had been “extraordinary” and had already succeeded in raising the issue of pollution higher on the political agenda.

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Berlin targets microplastics

The international body’s efforts could already be paying off, as it emerged on Wednesday that Germany’s environment agency (UBA) intends to call for an EU ban on microplastics in cosmetic products.

According to German broadcaster MDR, UBA believes that voluntary commitments by the cosmetic industry are no longer sufficient and will call on the European Commission to consider a full ban.

Since 2013, a voluntary agreement has been in place with the German industry. But UBA expert Marcus Gast claimed that this deal only covers a small number of microplastics, such as those found in toothpaste.

Earlier this year, German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks (SPD) warned she would consider a ban if the industry failed to self-regulate and in April said that legal measures would be taken if not enough progress had been made by 2020.

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Positions

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) welcomes these unprecedented UN resolutions to end plastic pollution but warns that binding targets and timetables are needed to deliver on their promises.

From Nairobi, Piotr Barczak of the EEB said:

“This is an important step forward to end plastic pollution. The topic is relatively new on the UN agenda, but the hope is that one day we’ll have a Paris Agreement to reduce the use of throwaway plastic, phase out unnecessary plastic items and boost reuse and recycling.”

The EEB encouraged governments to implement binding measures to transition to a circular economy, where waste is prevented and products reused or recycled, and to more sustainable production and consumption patterns, as already agreed in the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Background

The European Commission will in mid-January publish its long-awaited Plastics Strategy, which is expected to map out future legislative proposals on microplastics and the circular economy.