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Which priorities should a global plastic pollution treaty focus on? 5 leaders weigh in

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Plastic pollution: A beautiful beach with rolling waves, palm trees and warm sand polluted in plastic.

Plastic pollution continues to hit the headlines around the world. Image: Unsplash/Dustin Woodhouse

Kristin Hughes
Director, Resource Circularity
This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • The United Nations Environment Assembly made history in March 2022, by adopting a resolution setting up the path to a legally binding global treaty to end plastic pollution.
  • But not all questions and challenges have been resolved yet. As we move forward, some important questions should be considered as negotiations begin.
  • Here is what five leaders believe are the priorities and perspectives a global treaty on plastic pollution offers.

The United Nations Environment Assembly made history in March 2022, by adopting a resolution setting up the path to a legally binding global treaty to end plastic pollution. Heads of State, environment ministers and other representatives from 175 nations agreed on a resolution. Based on three initial draft resolutions from various nations, the resolution addresses the full lifecycle of plastic, its production, design and disposal. Crucial to delivering this, member states established an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) to draft a legally binding agreement by 2024.

This year’s Annual Meeting in Davos will bring together stakeholders from business, government and civil society to highlight how policies and actions taken should be fair, inclusive and truly sustainable, serving both people and the planet.

As we move forward, some important questions should be considered as negotiations begin, including: How will regulations need to differ among emerging and developed economies? How will the agreement be designed to be fair while considering the differences? How willing are countries and companies to enforce regulations on reduction, production and consumption?

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'System-wide change is needed'

Kristin Hughes, Director, Global Plastic Action Partnership

Global efforts to stem the tide of plastic pollution are falling by the wayside and the scale of the problem is growing exponentially. Plastic pollution continues to hit the headlines around the world as we increasingly understand the economic, health, ecological and social impact it has on people and the planet. There’s no doubt a system-wide change is needed. This requires countries to adopt national and city-level action plans. Even as we seek to agree on ambitious global targets, we must also proceed with local commitments and action.

Yet, national action only tackles one part of the equation. Regardless of how good some governments are at eliminating plastic pollution within their own borders, unless all countries adopt concerted efforts and are held to strong governance standards, without a truly global solution, countries will continue to deal with the plastic pollution of others. We need a solution to bring this work together. As negotiators begin to consider an international treaty on plastic pollution, they must ensure that the agreement delivers ambitious targets requiring national action plans and include approaches to strategic financing, common reporting and monitoring, innovative solutions, circularity-supporting trade policies, behaviour change campaigns and proper governance. Actions included by the INC will have different implications on stakeholders across the value chain. Businesses, the finance sector, civil society and marginalised communities all need their voices heard for any truly inclusive treaty to prevail.

As we seek ways to address the plastic pollution crisis, we must ensure that a binding agreement on plastic pollution delivers a win-win approach rather than a zero-sum game.

'Building a circular economy for plastic'

Jacob Duer, President and CEO, Alliance to End Plastic Waste

Financing is critical to the success of the new global agreement. The cost of providing waste management to over 3 billion people is significant, yet, ending plastic waste is also a tremendous investment opportunity. Traditional financial institutions, as well as new financing players such as the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, can capitalise on the surging global demand for recycled plastics to fund solutions at scale that could turn billions of investment capital into a $1 trillion circular economy for plastics that supports both developed and developing countries globally. Governments, businesses and investors are starting to mobilise capital towards funding projects, creating markets to supply customer demand at scale, as well as enhancing physical infrastructure and economics of recycling. To accelerate this process, public-private sector collaboration powered by catalytic finance to end plastic waste has never been more important.

'Most important global environmental agreement'

Inger Andersen, Executive Director, United Nations Environment Programme

At the 5th UN Environment Assembly, countries agreed to embark on negotiations towards a legally binding international treaty to end plastic pollution. Aiming to tackle the full life cycle of plastic pollution, such a historic agreement offers us a huge opportunity to transition to a new circular plastics economy, one where businesses innovate across the plastics value chain. Such an agreement will give us a real shot at putting the brakes on one of the most visible signs of unsustainable consumption and production – plastic pollution of our land and seas. In so doing, we stand on the cusp of the most important global environmental agreement since the Paris Agreement. It is now time for governments, businesses and people to rise to the challenge so we land this firmly together.

'Creating a ground-breaking precedent'

Ines Yabar, Sustainability Activist, Peru

The global Plastic Pollution Treaty is a great way to get commitments that we can all move forward with on paper. As with many treaties, it runs the risk of being treated as the objective not as merely one step in the right direction. As a young activist, I am looking forward to this treaty being ambitious but more importantly for it to set the stage for concrete actions attached to a results framework that tracks policies, reduces plastic production and puts funding behind upstream solutions. This treaty should demonstrate teamwork (beyond individual commitments), be prompt (not pushing the timelines further behind), and be legally binding (with consequences for those who don't comply).

With the clear link of climate change and plastic pollution as well as the increasing evidence of health risks linked to plastics, the treaty should be ready to hit the ground running. It's not time for more words but it is certainly time for action. This treaty has the chance to create a ground-breaking precedent of what our world could look like if we all come together committed to action, but it could also be one more document gathering dust. Young people and civil society are certainly ready to continue the work and we look forward to the commitments being followed through, the funding being secured and the laws being put in place so that we can look back at this moment and know the treaty was a success.

'A path to responsibe plastic consumption'

Aaditya Thackeray, Minister for Environment and Climate Change, Tourism and Protocol, Government of Maharashtra

In the past few years, the intensity of plastic pollution has increased, including in Maharashtra where micro and macro-plastics have been found on its beaches. Our state of 124 million people, recognising the scale of plastic pollution, has been proactive in banning single-use plastic and stressing on solid waste management in its climate action agenda. A plastic pollution treaty, then, enhances the state’s commitment to curb plastic pollution, thereby setting out on the path to responsible plastic consumption and protection of its biodiversity and resources, especially its long coastline. Multistakeholder platforms are crucial to this. They can inclusively convene, deliver action plans and establish circular economy frameworks for plastic that will have an impact on a wide scale.

'System-wide change is needed''Building a circular economy for plastic''Most important global environmental agreement''Creating a ground-breaking precedent''A path to responsibe plastic consumption'

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