• UN environment meeting could launch work on a global plastics treaty.
  • It could set rules for production, use and disposal of plastics.
  • Idea has growing support from businesses and governments.
  • Listen on Radio Davos and subscribe to the podcast.

When the world's governments meet at a United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) on 28 February – 2 March 2022, top of the agenda will be the creation of a global treaty on plastics.

In this episode of Radio Davos, we hear from supporters of the idea, who say that plastic pollution is a global problems that needs global solutions. And just like climate change has its 'Paris Agreement' that has set a target of net-zero greenhosue gas emissions, plastic should have its own treaty which sets the world on course for zero plastic pollution.

The World Economic Forum convened a meeting of experts - including the person who will chair the UNEA meeting, and voices from business, governments and civil society.

You can watch that session here:

Radio Davos transcript: A Paris Agreement for plastics

Speakers: Kristin Hughes, Director, Global Plastic Action Partnership, World Economic Forum; Espen Barth Eide, Minister of climate and environment of Norway and President of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA); Marco Lambertini, Director-General, WWF International; Rebecca Marmot, Chief Sustainability Officer, Unilever; Luis Vayas Valdivieso, Vice-Minister, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ecuador; Sheila Aggarwal-Khan, Director, Economy Division, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); Inés Yábar, Communications Coordinator, Co-Founder, Life Out Of Plastic - L.O.O.P.; Gim Huay Neo, Managing Director, Centre for Nature and Climate, World Economic Forum.

Robin Pomeroy: On this episode of Radio Davos, we're looking at plastics. This is the podcast where we look at the world's biggest challenges and how we might solve them. We've looked a lot at climate change. Another big environmental problem is plastics waste, and something happened at the World Economic Forum this week that really grabbed my attention. We're going to hear some of what happened, but to introduce that is Kristin Hughes [Director of Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP)] at the World Economic Forum. Hi, Kristin. Thanks so much for joining me at this last minute.

Kristin Hughes: Lovely to see you, Robin. thanks for the invitation.

Robin Pomeroy: It's a pleasure. So plastics, let's talk first about the problem a little bit, because we're going to be hearing from a lot of the key experts who are on your session at the World Economic Forum this week. Why is plastics a problem? And then we can talk about, potentially, how we're moving towards a solution.

Kristin Hughes: Well, sort of. Fascinatingly, at the beginning of this conversation, you talked about climate and how you've been having a lot of conversations about climate. And I think if you asked most people on the street their perspective on climate, they have a really hard time wrapping their brains around 1.5 degrees, or GHG [greenhouse gases] or COP26.

But if you ask people about plastic pollution, it's very real. It's very tangible. They see it every day. We all interact with plastic every single day. How we manage that plastic, however, has become a little bit of an insurmountable issue. And so the conversation that took place yesterday was to pull together some of the leading experts who are leading the way to try to have a conversation on a global treaty for plastics, which would help governments and leaders around the world to try to address plastic waste and pollution.

Right now, we estimate that more than eight million metric tons of plastic waste enters our global waters every year, and that's pretty much the equivalent of a dump truck coming into the ocean every single minute. So when you think about that amount and you get that picture in your mind, you realise this is a huge issue that absolutely needs to be tackled immediately.

Robin Pomeroy: You talk about a global treaty and there are some global treaties and agreements, aren't there, that deal with certain aspects of waste and of recycling and the trade in in waste in this kind of thing. Where are we so far and what's missing?

Kristin Hughes: Well, there are certain conversations and agreements in place, like the Basel agreement that talks about the kinds of transboundary movement you can have of highly hazardous materials. But nothing actually gets at the root problem, which helps governments to understand, and to pledge and make that commitment, in a binding way, as to how they will as individual governments address the plastic waste and pollution that exist today.

And so similar to the Paris accord on climate, where you saw governments coming together and each pledging to reach a particular level, and the reduction of GHG [greenhouse gases] within their country and their own carbon footprint. We'd be looking to do the same to help governments make that same commitment with regards to the plastic waste and pollution issue in their country and then also help them to try to achieve those numbers. So the idea behind the treaty is both to help governments come together, make these global commitments to address the issue, and then also take the steps towards mitigating the plastic waste and pollution.

Robin Pomeroy: So it's that big, what we're talking about here. One of the speakers on the session was the head of WWF International, the conservation and nature group, Marco Lambertini, who talked about about net zero in climate change emissions. Here, the ideal from his point of view would be zero plastics being emitted into nature. When the journalists are writing this up, or when it happens, and we'll discuss what happens in a second, is that the kind of headline they'll be writing?

Kristin Hughes: Absolutely. And Marco has been a champion for this cause from the beginning that people started talking about having a treaty. He was one of the absolute leaders pushing the way for there to be this conversation.

And essentially, the idea is to have a broad agreement around limiting the flow of plastic debris into nature. So again, it's not necessarily saying 'let's completely destroy plastic'. It's a relatively new material, over the last couple of generations, but we just have lost our way in how we manage plastics.

So a number of countries are really trying to work towards much more ambitious targets and an agreement sort of similar to that again of the Paris climate accord is necessary, some people say, to pull all of us together. So when you think about something like Paris, which has around 200 countries are signatories, you can appreciate the level of engagement that we might be able to get on plastic as well.

Robin Pomeroy: So the question is, when will this happen? And we're talking about something called the UNEA meeting, the United Nations Environment Assembly. When will this thing happen? What's going to happen?

Kristin Hughes: The United Nations Environment Assembly will begin on February 20 in Nairobi, and there will be a number of discussions that they have around so many different aspects of the environment. But this is going to be front and centre to really, really push... Those in favour of the treaty will tell you that this allows all different governments in all different countries to come together and align and work together towards a similar direction of travel to try to mitigate plastic pollution globally.

Because if you only have a few countries making progress, or few countries actually stepping up, this becomes a deal that actually then is moving beyond voluntary goals. But connecting and collecting all of the different perspectives, such that there would be an aligned approach, this allows these governments then to work together collectively and then hopefully to join a system where there would be much higher, much more stringent requirements, and they can then begin to also hold each other accountable.

We look across this as the Global Plastic Action Partnership, a public private platform that was born at the World Economic Forum, specifically to help governments to identify ways to address this issue.

We've created a modelling tool that allows governments to measure their plastic waste flows. And we also have tools developing through behaviour change, policy financing and inclusion that really help support governments in their transition to a circular economy and removing that plastic waste and pollution from their nature, for good.

And so we see the opportunity to help governments who are interested in signing up for the treaty, and having discussions about the treaty and about plastic waste mitigation. And we're here to try to help them in creating those baseline assessments and developing action roadmaps that can deliver action and reduce plastic pollution for good.

Robin Pomeroy: Right. Well, let's hear the session then. This is an edited version of the session. The first voice we'll hear is Espen Barth Eide, the Minister of Climate Environment in Norway.

Kristin Hughes: He's also the president of the UNEA.

Robin Pomeroy: So he'll also be chairing that meeting, then, in Nairobi. And this is what he had to say.

Espen Barth Eide: I am the president of UNEA, the United Nations Environment Assembly, which will meet in Nairobi in just three weeks from now and will have a broad agenda. But the really the main focus of me, as president, and of the bureau, and of the majority of the membership, is to work towards getting started a global treaty on plastic pollution.

UNEA, as you know, is overseeing UNEP and that is the United Nations Environment Programme. It is 50 years, this year, and it's the oldest, and it's the original UN forum for discussing environmental issues and in many ways, the mother of everything that came later.

What we do not have is a treaty on plastics. Plastics is a relatively new phenomenon. I was reflecting on this the other day, that while I don't think I'm a particularly old person, I can still say, as we all can, that when my grandparents were born, there wasn't really any plastics around. There's nothing that was used by normal people. When my parents were born, neither. Only one day came of age, plastics started to be a phenomenon around us, and in my lifetime, it has been omnipresent all over.

It's a very practical product for a lot of purposes, and I'm sure it will still be with us. But the problem, of course, is the way we use plastic when it ends up as plastic litter, when we throw it into nature, when it ends up in the oceans, and then it becomes a global phenomenon because the oceans moves plastics around and the problem of one contributes to the problem of another country. We then drink the water, even if it's filtered, we eat the fish and eventually the plastics end up in us. So plastics is not only the stuff you find lying around, it's even inside ourselves.

Robin Pomeroy: Espen Barth Eide - he's Norway's Environment Minister and also President of the United Nations Environment Assembly – that's the body that will be discussing a plastics treaty. He was moderating this discussion at the World Economic Forum, which featured people from business, from government and from civil society. Here's the head of conservation group WWF International, Marco Lambertini.

Marco Lambertini: Plastic pollution is a global problem, and so we do need a global commitment, a global commitment that translates into a global plan, and a global plan that can be implemented locally by everyone. It's not just the government's business, it's everybody's business – consumers and corporate sector, and everyone across the world, across countries and across supply chains, as well.

It's quite extraordinary how the awareness and the outrage, to some extent, about plastic pollution has grown over the last decade or so. And that's exciting. It is a great foundation for change, and that was also followed by a number of actions voluntary or not, taken by governments, by municipalities, by consumers themselves, by companies. But we all know that all these actions put together are just simply not enough, and the crisis of plastic pollution is accelerating.

I use the word 'crisis' because I think we are at the crisis level. Plastic is impacting the environment in all dimensions, at all levels of ecosystems, but also is beginning to impact livelihoods, impacting my health. So it is truly an issue that cannot be underestimated and you shouldn't leave any space for complacency.

So because of that, we need to embrace ambition. Clearly, we can't dance at the edges of the system. We need to address system change and focus on the entire full life cycle of plastic, upstream as well as downstream.

Robin Pomeroy: So what would a global treaty on plastics look like? Marco Lambertini again.

Marco Lambertini: Like for any big disruptive trade agreement or plan – because this is what we're talking about, we're thinking about triggering system change – doing this transition towards a different relationship with plastic. And the first thing that we need to be clear is the destination, is the vision, is the global goal - equivalent to net zero emissions for climate, to a net positive biodiversity for biodiversity. And in this case, it should be zero plastic in the environment.

Secondly, we need that global goal to be translated into a set of common global standards, rules, regulations – including bans, I have to say – that the world can agree to.

Thirdly, we need to also have a clear set of goals and targets, measurable, that inject accountability in the system, that allow the treaty to be effectively implemented. As I said earlier, the deal with the full life cycle of plastic - from reduction - and that's probably the most tricky, contentious issue. But there is no doubt in our mind, that we need to tackle the issue of reduction, of production and consumption of plastic.

Robin Pomeroy: So what's the view from industry? This is Rebecca Marmot, Chief Sustainability Officer at Unilever, a company that has been involved in several voluntary initiatives to reduce plastic waste.

Rebecca Marmot: It's really clear that voluntary initiatives will only get us so far, and that's not good enough. We've got to move more quickly and we've got to move across the board, hence the multi-stakeholder panel that you've got here today.

We believe we need to shift now to mandatory policy to really see the kind of reductions in the use of virgin plastic that we need to see, and drive that we move towards circularity.

There's two key issues with with the current approach. The first significant challenge is the artificially low price of virgin plastic, which is really slowing down lots of good intentions to scale the use of recycled content, and see the transition that we need to reuse and refill models – creating the kind of business models that we can become more circular with, say collecting and processing plastic. So we need a mandatory policy to reduce the production and use of virgin plastic across the world. And then that would really change the economics; the price of virgin plastic would increase.

Robin Pomeroy: 'Circularity' is a word you'll hear discussed a lot when we're talking about plastics waste and waste in general. It means the reuse of materials rather than the regular disposal of them. So what else did Rebecca Marmot of Unilever have to say about the global plastics treaty?

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What is the World Economic Forum doing about the circular economy?

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Scale360° Playbook Journey
Image: Scale360° Playbook

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Rebecca Marmot: The second big problem facing business is the lack of common standards, standard definitions and reporting metrics across different countries, which is a real problem.

So for a business like Unilever – we're present in 190 different countries around the world –it really slows down our ability to respond to both the consumer demand and also the environmental issues, by providing a standardised approach that it's really easy to see what companies are doing and to be able to make meaningful comparisons. So I think success is a UN treaty that cuts down the production of virgin plastic and creates this accountable, harmonised framework for all stakeholders to be able to respond to. And that, of course, crucially, includes business.

So, this is a shared ambition within the business community. You've seen, last month, there were 100 big companies now calling for this legally binding UN treaty. This includes upstream policy interventions. So I look forward to seeing a treaty ratified and launched, and seeing the progress that we all desperately want to see.

Robin Pomeroy: Unilever's Chief Sustainability Officer, Rebecca Marmot. So from business to government, here's Luis Vayas Valdivieso, he's the Vice Minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ecuador.

Luis Vayas Valdivieso: I believe we need to increase coordination among international instruments and processes. Most nations, right now, we agree on the need for a legally binding instrument to address plastic pollution. UNEA 5.2 must provide us with a strong negotiation mandate.

This is a unique opportunity to enhance collaboration and coordination amongst the existing international instruments and processes. At the domestic and regional fronts, governments should work holistically, from marine litter, to microplastic pollution, to life cycle approaches on plastics.

Robin Pomeroy: Louis Vayas Valdivieso, a minister in the government of Ecuador. He mentioned UNEA 5.2 because the meeting in Nairobi is officially a resumed session number 5 that was interrupted by COVID.

So, do we need a global treaty on plastics? Isn't plastics waste something that can be dealt with better locally? This is Sheila Aggarwal-Khan, Director of the Economy division of the United Nations Environment Programme.

Sheila Aggarwal-Khan: Interestingly, I was at the beach the other day and asking the guys on the beach, 'You know, don't you guys ever clean up your ocean?' And they turned around and said, 'Yes, and then tomorrow we get a whole lot more waste coming in, and it just comes across the ocean and there's nothing you can do'. So as much beach clean-up as you have, you just need more and more cleanups.

And so actually, all you're doing is dealing with the symptom. You're not dealing with the whole life cycle. You're not dealing with the cause of the issue. And what we're seeing is if we don't do anything, we will end up with some 80 million metric tonnes of plastic waste by 2040. That's equivalent to 50 kilos of plastic for one metre of coastline worldwide.

Robin Pomeroy: Sheila Aggarwal-Khan spoke of the economic and health risks posed by plastic pollution and also the link between plastics and climate change.

Sheila Aggarwal-Khan: So, on the one hand we have the Paris Agreement saying 'reduce greenhouse gas emissions, race to zero'. And then we see a plastic industry where actually plastic production is being ramped up. And so there is a risk of getting up to 10% of emissions from plastics because, as you know, plastics come from fossil fuels. So by 2050, we could have emissions reaching 10%.

If we don't deal with the entire life cycle, what one industry player does or what one government does, is negated by another does. There's no level playing field for industry to benefit from a new plastics economy.

When we looked at the ozone agreement, the targets that were set allowed industry to flourish with substances that would not deplete the ozone layer. And here we have a chance to create a new plastics market, really, that would really set us on a different economy from what we have today.

So unless we look at what are the kinds of things that have to go at every stage in the plastics life cycle – from the production of plastics all the way, not to the disposal, but to the way those plastics which would have ended up disposed go back into the economy –it's a futile piece. And we will see the kind of economic environment and social impacts that are continuing to grow in the trends we're seeing.

Robin Pomeroy: Sheila Aggarwal-Khan, Director of the Economy Division of the United Nations Environment Programme. A global treaty on plastics would rapidly increase the efforts that some companies have already made to make their supply chains 'circular' - that phrase again. This is Unilever's Rebecca Marmont again, talking about new ways of delivering products to consumers.

Rebecca Marmot: We need to think about using plastics completely differently - less plastic, actually whole new business models that don't even use plastic at all - a whole different way of, for example, in the consumer goods industry, looking at what we can do to encourage people to reuse the spray. So Cif, our cleaning spray, you buy the bottle once and now you just buy tiny micro refill and you use that and top it up with water so you're only buying the plastic spray one time.

Or models, indeed, when you go into stores [that] perhaps have replenishment service in your home with a grocery shop if you live in a country where that's possible, and you're getting refills of your detergents or your shampoos, etc.

We're doing a lot of work with governments in developed and developing and emerging markets, to look at what we can do to support the development of a waste infrastructure. We're very, very supportive of these well-designed EPR regulations, which will really help waste management requirements in different countries, because, of course, the problem does need to be targeted at a national level.

It's really important, I think if we don't have that, and we don't have government and the private sector working on recycling programmes, making sure that money's invested into the right places - we talked at the beginning about the importance of making a treaty mandatory so that you can really hold businesses to account so that they have to answer as to why they've chosen the packaging choices they've made - I think all of those things together are what hopefully results in the circular economy.

Robin Pomeroy: The acronym that Rebecca Marmot used there, she said she welcomed 'EPR regulations' that's 'extended producer responsibility', where producers are still responsible for what happens to their products and the packaging of their products, even once they're in the hands of the consumer. Rebecca also talked about the importance of 'making a treaty mandatory, so that you can really hold businesses to account'. And for WWF's Marco Lambertini, that would include mandatory bans of certain types of plastics.

Marco Lambertini: I definitely think that the negotiation of the treaty should be bold enough to consider bans, as well as incentives for alternative use. We have seen bans working in a number of countries already. Consumers actually perhaps received this regulation with some scepticism at the beginning, but actually at the end of the day, in many cases, they did work.

I think we've got to be bold here. And if something is not right, whatever it is - virgin plastic, level of production, related to single use - I think the treaty should be tackled with high standards and potentially bans and regulation, and strong regulation as well.

Robin Pomeroy: So we'll see what comes out of the meeting in Nairobi, which will be just the start, I imagine, of a lengthy process. Let's hear from a young campaigner, speaking about how it shouldn't be that long - there's an urgency to get things done. This is Inés Yábar, 25, from Peru, whose campaigns there have helped push through a ban on single use plastic.

Inés Yábar: Marco Lambertini mentioned that we're in a crisis and we have been since I was a child, and that need for a treaty is really urgent. We need a real binding agreement and, as Rebecca said as well, an accountable framework so that the solutions can be tracked and rolled out. We need to go beyond the voluntary agreements that already exist and create the right conditions that really incentivise progress and track it too. This treaty should be an avenue for immediate action, not just a signed document with people's ambitions, but the success will really go beyond UNEA and it will be seen in the actions in different companies, countries or through citizens actions, as well.

Robin Pomeroy: Inés Yabár from Peru and this is Gim Huay Neo, head of the World Economic Forum's Centre for Nature and Climate, again underlining the urgent need for action.

Gim Huay Neo: We all need a global treaty that is bold. We should not fall short of ambition. To really build for ourselves a beautiful world, we need standards, goals, targets to support the implementation, and we need to also be very proactive in thinking about incentives, disincentives for change. One of the things we need to address is the cost economics, single use plastics, virgin material, life cycle assessments from production to usage. What we need is a treaty that is bold, ambitious, broad and urgently concluded so that we can continue to push on a problem that is really right before us.

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