A legally binding agreement on plastic pollution – FAQs

From 22-26 February 2021, government officials from around the world will meet in Kenya at the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) to discuss the possibility of initiating the development of a global plastic treaty.

Why do we need an international legally binding agreement on plastic pollution?

Plastic pollution is pervasive. Its sources are numerous. The reach and depth of the contamination of our ocean is horrifying. Microplastics have now been documented in all marine habitats – from the ocean surface and sea ice to the seabed – and are ingested by species throughout the marine food chain. They have been detected in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat.

While improvements to waste management are essential, the exponential growth trends in plastic production mean that we cannot recycle our way out of this problem. No recycling system in the world could deal with the sheer volume of plastic currently consumed around the world daily, which inevitably leads to millions of tonnes being landfilled, incinerated and leaking into the natural environment. The only long-term, comprehensive way to address plastic pollution is to address its root cause – turning off this relentless tap of plastic flooding onto the market every day.

Addressing the plastic pollution crisis is beyond the ability of any one country or region or sector, necessarily requiring an international response. No such framework currently exists to coordinate action at a global level, as confirmed by an in-depth review by UN Environment which concluded that “no global agreement exists to specifically prevent marine plastic litter and microplastics or provide a comprehensive approach to managing the lifecycle of plastics.”[1]

As such, political momentum for a new global agreement is growing fast. This is evidenced by several recent high-level regional and ministerial declarations, including: the Nordic Ministerial Declaration, [2] Caribbean and Community and Common Market (CARICOM) St. Johns Declaration, [3] The Durban Declaration, [4] and the new European Union (EU) Circular Economy Action Plan[5] that all call for a legally binding global treaty.

The legislative gap must now be filled, and these aspirations met, by a new legally binding agreement on plastic pollution with power to address the problem at source by putting a cap on plastic production.

[1] UN Environment, Combating Marine Plastic Litter and Microplastics: An Assessment of the Effectiveness of Relevant International, Regional and Subregional Governance Strategies and Approaches (15 February 2018), UNEP/EA.3/INF/5, p. 105.

[2] Nordic Co-operation. (2019). Nordic ministerial declaration on the call for a global agreement to combat marine plastic litter and microplastics. Nordic Co-operation official website. Accessed 23rd March 2020. Available here.

[3] Market Screener (2019). CARICOM Caribbean Community: Communiqué issued at the conclusion of the fortieth regular meeting of the conference of heads of government of the Caribbean community. Market Screener website. Accessed 30th March 2020. Available here.

[4] African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN). Report of the ministerial segment. (Durban, November 2019). AMCEN/17/9. Available here.

[5] European Commission. A new Circular Economy Action Plan for a cleaner and more competitive Europe. (Brussels, 11th March 2020). COM(2020) 98 final. Available here.

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What is the United Nations Environment Assembly, and what’s happening at its 5th session in February 2021?

The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) is the highest-level decision-making body on the environment at the global level. It meets in Nairobi every two years to set priorities for global environmental policies and develop international environmental law. It is attended by policy makers, industry, experts and NGOs from all over the world.

UNEA has been exploring how to tackle marine plastic pollution through a special group (known as an Ad Hoc Open-Ended Expert Group) with a mandate to explore barriers to and options for combating marine plastic litter and microplastics from all sources, especially land-based. The 5th session (UNEA-5) taking place in February 2021 will be a critical next step towards agreeing a new global framework, building on the options presented to the expert group. It is at this conference that Member States will ultimately decide if there is a need for negotiations for a new Convention to begin or not, and whether the Ad Hoc Open-Ended Expert Group needs more time to consider governance options.

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What should a new legally binding agreement on marine plastic pollution address?

EIA believes that the new legally binding agreement should be based on four pillars of action.

  • Pillar 1: Monitoring and Reporting. Monitoring and reporting on the state of the environment and implementation will be key in understanding the relative success of the treaty. EIA believe that the evolution of two key indicators should form the cornerstone of these activities:
    • Presence of Plastic Pollution - Environmental Monitoring: the presence of plastic pollution in the environment, e. tracking the evolution of plastic in the marine and other environment over time
    • Circular Economy and Leakage - Data Reporting: plastic inputs into the environment, e. tracking national progress towards a circular economy and the reduction of plastic leakage into the environment.
  • Pillar 2: Plastic Pollution Prevention. Preventing plastic pollution from entering the environment will require measures that go beyond the scope of existing conventions and agreements – for instance, the power to ban certain single-use plastic products, and putting restrictions on new plastic production (particularly those that are hard to recycle or used in single-use applications) and toxic additives.
  • Pillar 3: Coordination. There are several existing international conventions and agreements that can make decisions relevant to particular aspects of plastic pollution – such as the toxicity of certain chemicals found in plastics under the Stockholm Convention, international trade of plastic waste under the Basel Convention, or disposal of waste from ships under MARPOL. These are separate bodies with their own mandates and jurisdictions, but coordination is needed to align efforts.
  • Pillar 4: Technical and Financial Support. All decisions will need to be based on the best scientific evidence and socio-economic assessment, and some countries will require financial assistance to tackle different aspects of the plastic problem. As such, technical and financial resources will be needed to support decision-making and assist developing countries and economies in transition.

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What has happened at UNEA so far?

At the 3rd session of UNEA (UNEA-3), governments established an Ad Hoc Open-Ended Expert Group (AHOEEG) to review different options to address the plastic pollution crisis. This group has explored issues related to global governance, considering existing agreements and frameworks and identifying where gaps remained, in addition to analysing the effectiveness of existing and potential response options. The expert group’s mandate was extended at UNEA-4 in March 2019 to continue its work on scoping possible governance options for ending marine plastic pollution.

There has since been broad support on the need for a deeper look into a new global architecture, in particular a legally binding agreement covering the life cycle of plastics. The possible design and elements of this new global agreement will be discussed at the 5th session of UNEA (UNEA-5) in February 2021, hopefully leading to the establishment of an intergovernmental negotiating committee.

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How long will it take to get an agreement in place?

It depends on the will of the world’s governments, but the process to negotiate and bring into force a treaty is usually quite lengthy.

The recently negotiated Minamata Convention on Mercury provides a point of comparison. In 2007, the decision was made to establish an open-ended working group “to review and assess options for enhanced voluntary measures and new or existing international instruments.” Then, in 2009, following multiple meetings of the group, the decision was taken to develop a legally binding instrument, with an intergovernmental negotiating committee established. In 2013, following five meetings of this committee, the convention text was adopted and opened for signature. In 2017, the Minamata Convention on Mercury entered into force.

For marine plastic pollution, we have the benefit of having already had three meetings of the Ad Hoc Open-Ended Expert Group (AHOEEG) in 2018 and 2019. Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the fourth session of the expert group has been postponed until September 2020. Despite this, it is still hoped that the ongoing work of the group will merit an intergovernmental negotiating committee to be established at UNEA-5 in February 2021. After that, it could take anywhere from 2-4 years to complete negotiations on the text and open it for signature. It is important to realise that a great deal of work will be happening to address marine plastic pollution at the national and regional levels during this time.

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Isn’t there already legislation in place to tackle marine plastic pollution?

Yes and no.

A number of international Conventions exist that are relevant for tackling different aspects of marine plastic pollution, including the Stockholm and Basel Conventions and MARPOL, as well as various Regional Seas Conventions. There is also a variety of national and regional (e.g. EU level) legislation in different countries.

However, this jigsaw of pieces does not complete the puzzle. A comprehensive study by UN Environment concluded, “[n]o global agreement exists to specifically prevent marine plastic litter and microplastics or provide a comprehensive approach to managing the lifecycle of plastics”.[1] To fill these gaps in global governance will require the negotiation and adoption of a new global agreement.

[1] UN Environment, Combating Marine Plastic Litter and Microplastics: An Assessment of the Effectiveness of Relevant International, Regional and Subregional Governance Strategies and Approaches (15 February 2018), UNEP/EA.3/INF/5, p. 15.

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Is EIA trying to ban all plastic?

No – EIA is not trying to ban all plastic. Plastic is used for a wide range of purposes in our societies and across different sectors and industries. Some of these uses are highly functional and would be hard to replace – such as for certain medical applications – but the many are not. Every day, millions of tonnes of single-use packaging and items flood onto the market to be used once and then quickly discarded. This is completely wasteful, posing an unnecessary and totally avoidable environmental and social risk. For those plastics that are placed on the market, they should be safe for use and recycling.

For these reasons, EIA is trying to eliminate unnecessary use of plastic, particularly single-use, and we see bans as playing a key role in that. We also believe that the plastic and plastic products that are placed on the market should be produced and design with a safe and clean circular economy in mind. We are not calling for an outright or overnight elimination of all plastic, but a progressive shift away from our current toxic reliance on a material that causes so much environmental damage. This could start with pointless and easily replaceable plastics, as well as problem plastics which can’t be recycled or are particularly harmful, and a shift towards more widespread use of reuse and refill systems.

Such measures are not unprecedented. For example, the European Union recently adopted the Single Use Plastics Directive, which bans many single-use plastic items such as cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, beverage stirrers, balloon sticks, and many expanded polystyrene products. These single-use plastic items are commonly among the top items found on beaches, yet alternatives are readily available, and their continued use is unnecessary. This piece of legislation is also setting a pathway towards implementing Extended Producer Responsibility schemes for other problematic plastic items, such as fishing gear and certain types of consumer plastic, to ensure responsibility for managing products throughout their lifecycle is fairly transmitted along the supply chain

Around the world, a long and growing list of countries are taking tough action to clamp down on unnecessary single-use plastic. Kenya has the strictest plastic bag ban in the world – with fines of up to $38,000 and prison sentences for people caught selling, manufacturing or carrying them.

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Isn’t there a risk that banning plastic could lead to even worse environmental outcomes?

Some sources suggest that swapping plastic for other materials (such as glass and paper) will have a bigger environmental cost in terms of energy and carbon emissions.

First and foremost, we’re not advocating a simple substitution of one single-use item for another. We want to see a wholescale shift to a circular economy – remove unnecessary single-use items altogether without substitution, enable greater reusability and recycle the rest.

Often, claims around the environmental impact of removing plastic are based upon Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) of a limited number of environmental aspects, e.g. carbon dioxide emissions and solid waste production, and do not necessarily consider the impact of plastic on marine and terrestrial wildlife. Many of the LCAs have been carried out by the plastic industry, they are based on a huge number of variables and assumptions, easy to manipulate and need to be considered with caution.

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Big businesses have recently committed to invest large amounts in recycling and ocean clean-ups. What more is needed?

Voluntary actions by businesses can play a role, but these generally fail to address the root cause of the problem. Even if all existing marine plastic pollution could be removed from the ocean – something which has not been proven scientifically or technically possible – if we continue to pump out more plastic, then the problem has not been solved.

There is of course a role for recycling, but the sheer volume of plastic currently consumed would require huge investments in infrastructure far beyond current commitments. Even for highly developed countries like the UK, infrastructure is severely pressured by supply, with only 30-34% of UK consumer plastic packaging currently collected and recycled.[1] Even with the best available recycling technology, the maximum recycling rate for the current mix of plastics would only be between 36% - 53%.[2] Moreover, even if a plastic is recyclable or made of recycled content, it will still pose the same level of risk if it escapes into the natural environment. And of course, plastic can only be recycled a limited number of times, unlike other materials such as glass.

Too often, commitments from companies seek to present solutions where we can “manage” the endless flood of cheap plastic from which they profit. It is revealing that the companies that pledged US $1 billion to fight plastic waste are many of the same companies that invested over US $180 billion since 2010 in new facilities for plastic production.[3]

We need real solutions, ones that work to stem the flood of cheap and unnecessary plastic and unmanageable quantities of plastic waste. This includes caps on new production, bans on single-use plastic items and commitments to adopt sustainable packaging practices and alternative delivery systems for their products.

[1] WRAP, 2018. PlasticFlow 2025. Plastic Packaging Flow Data Report. Available online.

[2] Denkstatt, The potential for plastic packaging to contribute to a circular and resource-efficient economy (Identiplast, 2015).

[3] The Guardian, $180bn Investment in Plastic Factories Feeds Global Packaging Binge (26 December 2017), available here.

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Some reports state that 90% of plastic polluting the oceans comes from just 10 rivers in Asia and Africa? Wouldn’t it be better to focus on addressing these hotspots?

This is actually not true. The report Export of Plastic Debris by Rivers into the Sea, the source of the figure, concluded that, of the total plastic waste entering the marine environment from a review of 57 rivers worldwide and some extrapolation, 10 rivers contributed to 90% of that total.

Although there is a great deal of uncertainty with this figure, it does underscore the need to prevent plastic waste from entering the sea from rivers. Notably, the brands behind much of the single use plastics being sold onto these markets are headquartered in Europe and the US – underscoring the need for an international approach. Furthermore, half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is fishing gear, highlighting the need to address all sources.

Whichever way you look at it: once released into the environment, plastics exist for centuries. It does not matter whether it is from one of these 10 rivers, any of the other rivers or some other source entirely, such as wastewater, ships or coastal activities. The only viable long-term solution to marine plastic pollution is to stem the tide of plastics from all sources, which requires rethinking plastics and our consumption of them.

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What is EIA’s approach to bringing this about?

EIA is working at national (in the UK), European and international levels, collaborating with organisations around the world who share our aims and vision.

At the UK level, we are advocating strong new legislation on single use plastics, extended producer responsibilities and other areas that the UK government is currently consulting on. We are also working to galvanise corporate action and push major UK retailers to adopt ambitious commitments to cut single-use plastics and packaging.

At the European level, as a member of the Rethink Plastic Alliance, EIA was—and continues to be—very active on the European Strategy on Plastic in a Circular Economy. This includes working on the legislative revisions under the Circular Economy Package, such as the review of the Waste Shipment Regulation, as well as the recently adopted Single Use Plastics Directive, which targets single-use plastic items and fishing gear, and the Port Reception Facilities Directive, which targets plastic waste from sea-based sources.

At the international level, EIA, partners with several organisations within the Break Free From Plastic (BFFP) movement, working to rally the countries of the world around a new global agreement on marine plastic pollution through advocacy at the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) and related meetings. Based on our significant activities in other multilateral forums, such as the Basel Convention and International Maritime Organisation, coupled with our on-the-ground experience working to reduce plastic at the European level, we know what is possible and have an ambitious vision for making it happen.

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