Pollution

Manage or close the tap: International law to end plastic pollution

A great variety of polymers came to be used after World War II. These were developed by the chemical industry during the war and continued to be used thereafter. For their discoveries in the field of the chemistry and technology of high polymers, Karl Ziegler and Giulio Natta were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1963. Soon after, the introduction of the one-piece polyethylene shopping bag by Celloplast in 1965, lead to the growth of single-use disposable plastics which account for about 40% of plastic produced every year. The production of plastic increased worldwide from 15 million tonnes in 1964 to 348 million tonnes in 2017.

At the recently concluded UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2), in light of the high and rapidly increasing levels of plastic pollution, and the need to prevent plastic pollution and its related risks to human health and its adverse impacts on the environment, 175 countries resolved to constitute an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC). The INC, beginning its work later this year, is tasked with the responsibility of drafting an international legally binding instrument by the end of 2024 that will guide international action to end plastic pollution.

Globally, plastic production stands at about 400 million tonnes, and could double by 2040. Ever since plastic production began in the 20th century, until 2015, only about 9% of plastic waste generated has been recycled and 12 percent incinerated, the balance 79% has accumulated in landfills or in the natural environment. Plastic has infiltrated all parts of the ocean, 95% of which is beyond national jurisdiction. About 11 million tonnes of plastic is dumped into the ocean each year, and this figure is projected to double by 2030 and nearly triple by 2040.

The INC, beginning its work later this year, is tasked with the responsibility of drafting an international legally binding instrument by the end of 2024 that will guide international action to end plastic pollution.

About half a century earlier, Olof Palme, in 1972, had urged for urgent, concerted, international action to address the increasing pollution of regional and high seas. However, it was not until the description of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Gyre by the oceanographer Charles Moore in 1997, that drew global attention to the scale of marine litter problem. The North Pacific Gyre is one of the most remote regions of the ocean but instead of a pristine ocean, Moore witnessed plastic debris for the entire duration of about a week that it took him to cross the subtropical high—a system of wind-driven ocean currents.

An international legally binding instrument by 2024 to end plastic pollution, is an absolute necessity, but it could be a case of too little, too late. Following the tone and language of the Paris Agreement, the UNEA draft resolution foregrounds national circumstances and capabilities. It recognises the obvious that each country is best positioned to understand its own national circumstances, and its stakeholder activities. It acknowledges that legal obligations arising out of the proposed international legally binding instrument will require capacity building and technical and financial assistance to be effectively implemented by developing countries and countries with economies in transition. Based on the collective articulation, the trajectory and fate of the new instrument, seems would be no different from that the Paris Agreement; wide acceptance but individual inaction or at best, actions incommensurate with the scale and urgency of the challenge.

It acknowledges that legal obligations arising out of the proposed international legally binding instrument will require capacity building and technical and financial assistance to be effectively implemented by developing countries and countries with economies in transition.

To address the challenge of plastic pollution, East African countries of Rwanda and Kenya have shown that it does not take technical and financial assistance to turn off the problematic tap. When Rwanda implemented the ban on plastic bags in 2008, it was even lower in HDI ranking at 167th. India is ranked higher on HDI ranking at 131 with Gross National Income per capita of 6,681 yet implementation of similar bans continues to be delayed despite being announced on several occasions, and India is not an exception. Literature suggests that delays in implementation and policy reversals are due to the business power of domestic plastic industries emanating from economic contribution and employment. According to another study, countries that are able to successfully ban plastic bags and single-use plastics either do not have a strong plastics industry or are dependent on services-based growth, especially where nature tourism is a key component of services sector growth. “Given the externall y-dependent nature of services-based (and specifically tourism) growth, countries are often in competition with each other to secure foreign capital and tourists.” Then, there are countries such as Thailand that thrive on tourism—which grew by 7.5% in 2018—and on manufacturing and exports (7.2% growth in 2018), and is among the five largest contributors of marine plastic pollution in the world. Turning the tap off is more challenging than it appears.

India is ranked higher on HDI ranking at 131 with Gross National Income per capita of 6,681, yet implementation of similar bans continues to be delayed despite being announced on several occasions, and India is not an exception.

While the INC has the opportunity to specify the objectives of the instrument and should cover the entire gamut from production through disposal and reduction of the leakage of existing plastic currently in the global ecosystem, it should desist from suggesting financial assistance. Finances take up centre stage and little action is actually taken as is evident from the deliberations and pace of action under UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement. Rather, the suggestion to the nations should be that those who can afford, should invest in improved waste management systems to ensure that a high proportion can be reused or recycled, and those that are unable to make this investment, must close the tap by phasing out problematic plastic items.

The piece was first published on ORF

(The study has been authored by namitra Anurag Danda is senior visiting fellow with ORF’s Energy and Climate Change Programme.)

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