How can the scope of a new global legally binding agreement on plastic pollution to facilitate an efficient negotiation be clearly defined?


Crossing borders both as a truly globalized commodity and eventually as unmanaged waste, plastic pollution warrants joint global action. Plastic pollution has the potential to spread toxic chemicals intentionally added to them or passively adsorbed from the environment, including persistent organic pollutants, endocrine disruptor chemicals, and heavy metals, posing enormous risks to marine ecosystems, biodiversity, and food availability.(1) With the unprecedented concern already having been raised worldwide, the problem was further aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The urgency of addressing plastic pollution was reiterated by countries at the first session of the Fifth United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.1) on February 22–23, 2021. At the meeting, delegates stressed the inadequacy of existing international legal and policy frameworks and the trans-boundary characteristics of plastics. At least 40 countries expressed support for a new global agreement on plastic pollution.(2)

In international diplomacy and policy negotiations, the quest for accuracy of wording is almost extreme. A miniscule variation in wording can lead to a huge change in scopes and responsibilities. The terms “marine plastic litter” and “microplastics” are commonly cited in the relevant discussions, policy papers, and resolutions. Other terms, such as “marine litter”, “marine debris”, and “plastic pollution”, were also used by country leaders at UNEA-5.1. The different wordings may, intentionally or not, reflect the speakers’ different focuses and objectives with regard to the plastic issue. Thus, the lack of a defined terminology may trigger confusion, misinterpretation, and resource-demanding processes. Disentangling these potential differences and defining a common objective early on may contribute to enhancing stakeholder engagement and facilitate a more streamlined negotiation process. This article will shed light on some of the more profound divergences in ongoing international deliberations and some critical intersections on the road to a negotiation mandate for a future plastic agreement.

In each of the UNEA meetings since 2014, plastic has been a key topic. Different framings of the plastic pollution issue can be observed in its resolutions and countries’ statements. The resolutions adopted were titled “Marine Plastic Debris and Microplastics” (EA.1/Res.6), “Marine Plastic Litter and Microplastics” (EA.2/Res.11), “Marine Litter and Microplastics” (EA.3/Res.7), and “Marine Plastic Litter and Microplastics” (EA.4/Res.6), the last of of which is currently the most widely accepted. At UNEA-5.1, various countries intervened on the issue using terms such as “marine plastic litter and pollution of microplastics” and “marine litter and plastic pollution”.(3) No doubt, the marine ecosystem is the end point of large amounts of pollution and there has been significant global attention paid to the emerging environmental problems related to plastic pollution, particularly to the marine environment. However, the “marine” label may also depict a boundary for action, essentially relegating the solution to the end of the pipe after the plastics are out in the environment and potentially limiting options for eliminating waste across the entire life cycle of plastics. With over 80% of ocean plastic coming from land-based sources, the solution of marine plastic pollution is mainly land-based and upstream. Hence, an overly narrow marine scope of the international deliberations may fail to incorporate key land-based upstream sources and corresponding mitigative measures, such as sustainable design, production, and consumption.

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ACS, 27 April 2021