A Global Plastics Treaty to “Turn Off the Tap” Wins Support at UNEA

In what is being heralded as a historic win for advocates working to tackle the plastic pollution crisis, parties to the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA 5.2) have agreed on a mandate to negotiate a legally binding treaty addressing the full life cycle of plastics, from production to disposal.

Over 1,000 civil society groups, 450 scientists, one million individuals, and numerous governments called on the UN to commit to negotiating a treaty that is legally binding and covers the entire life cycle of plastic—from extraction to disposal.

As 1,500 delegates from 193 countries convened at the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA 5.2) this week in Nairobi, Kenya, they were greeted by a stunning spectacle—a giant plastic tap. The 30-foot-tall art installation, a recreation of an earlier project by artist/activist Ben Von Wong, was assembled and presented in collaboration with the Human Needs Project, which supplied thousands of pieces of plastic from Kibera, Africa’s largest slum, located less than 10 miles from where the delegates convened. Over 100 jobs were provided to underserved local communities who participated in the art installation’s assembly.

The visceral image of a massive plastic tap spewing plastic pollution was especially relevant for the UNEA meeting, where world leaders discussed the creation of a mandate for negotiating a Global Plastics Treaty, which would provide the first comprehensive global agreement on plastic pollution—a crisis that affects the entire planet.

Individuals may continue to sign on and encourage world leaders to support a bold & binding global plastics treaty that covers the entire life cycle of plastic.

One Million Voices Represented at UNEA

On March 2, 2022, organizations and activists from the Break Free From Plastic movement, on the ground in Nairobi, delivered the message that more than one million people have signed onto petitions calling for a legally binding global plastics treaty that covers the full life cycle of plastic. Others sent the message from afar.

Their collective message, captured in Von Wong’s latest work of art, is that the conversation around plastics is too often focused on false downstream solutions like clean up and recycling—ignoring the fact that most plastic cannot be recycled and ends up incinerated, in landfills, or in oceans and waterways. These false solutions, which have been propagated by the fossil fuel industry for decades, blame the consumer for an inability to clean up a product that never goes away. The real solution and opportunity is getting plastic production back under control by making sure we #TurnOffThePlasticTap. The Global Plastics Treaty is an opportunity to do just that.

The negotiation of the treaty will continue for the next two years. 

Plastic Pollution Coalition will host a webinar on March 16, 2022, with advocates who were on the ground in Nairobi at UNEA 5.2, to discuss the developments there and how the process will now unfold.


Ben Von Wong’s work lies at the intersection of fantasy and photography and combines everyday objects with shocking statistics. His art has attracted the attention of corporations and NGOs alike and has generated over 100 million views for causes like ocean plastics, electronic waste, and fashion pollution. Most recently, he was named one of Adweek’s 11 content-branded masterminds. He is also the host of the Impact Everywhere Podcast and a creative advisor for the Ocean Plastic Leadership Network and the Sustainable Ocean Alliance.

Today at the One Ocean Summit, the United States, France, Canada, and South Korea announced their commitment to a binding treaty to tackle plastic pollution at all stages of its life cycle. This announcement comes ahead of the 5th UN Environment Assembly (UNEA 5.2), which will be held February 28–March 2, 2022, in Nairobi, Kenya.

Nearly 1,000 organizations have signed on to a call for the United Nations to negotiate a new legally binding global instrument that covers plastic pollution across its entire life cycle—from extraction to disposal. These organizations represent civil society, indigenous peoples, workers and trade unions, and other organizations, as well as scientists from around the world.

Plastic Pollution Coalition, along with other organizations in the Break Free From Plastic movement, expressed their support for the announcements.

We are pleased to see these strong commitments towards a more just, equitable world free of plastic pollution and its toxic impacts. It is critical that a new global plastics treaty address the plastics crisis at all stages of its life cycle. We invite world leaders to join in to pursue and negotiate a bold and binding treaty that will help us build a better future.

Dianna Cohen, Co-Founder and CEO of Plastic Pollution Coalition

Individuals may also sign on to support the call for a bold, binding treaty ahead of UNEA 5.2.

Media Contact:

Jen Fela, Vice President, Programs & Communications, jen@plasticpollutioncoalition.org

Plastic Pollution Coalition is a global alliance of more than 1,200 organizations, businesses, and thought leaders in 75 countries working toward a more just, equitable world free of plastic pollution and its toxic impact on humans, animals, waterways, oceans, and the environment.

News outlets and environmental groups worldwide have been abuzz recently about the need for a “Global Plastics Treaty,” leaving many to wonder what this proposed treaty is all about and why it’s being discussed on such a large scale now.

Nearly 1,000 organizations have signed on to a call for the United Nations to negotiate a new legally binding global instrument that covers plastic pollution across its entire life cycle—from extraction to disposal. These organizations represent civil society, indigenous peoples, workers and trade unions, and other organizations, as well as scientists from around the world.

You can sign on too and encourage world leaders to support a bold & binding global plastics treaty.

Why Now?

These calls to action come at a crucial time, as representatives from around the world are set to meet at the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA 5.2) in Nairobi from February 28–March 2, 2022. UNEA 5.2 brings together the 193 Member States of the United Nations, businesses, civil society (of which Plastic Pollution Coalition is a part), and other stakeholders to discuss and agree on policies to address the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. When representatives from around the world convene at the assembly in late February, the decisions they make will set the stage for how a new global plastics treaty will develop going forward. 

We demand governments agree to a mandate coming out of UNEA 5.2 with specific legally-binding provisions and obligations covering the entire life cycle of plastics–from extraction, production, use, disposal, and remediation. It’s time for governments to prioritize the health of people and the planet over profit and corporate greed.

BreakFreeFromPlastic

This is a critical moment to tell world leaders to support the Peru-Rwanda resolution which is the best foundation we have for a bold and binding global plastics treaty that will cover the full life cycle of plastics.

Industry will likely push for a global plastics treaty that is focused downstream, on “marine litter,” “ocean plastics,” or “waste management”, all of which avoid addressing the full impact of the plastic life cycle and would allow the fossil fuel industry to keep producing endless amounts of plastic and companies to continue greenwashing.

The Problem with Plastic—From Extraction to Disposal

Plastic pollutes at every stage of its existence, from extraction, use, to disposal:

  • Over 300 million pounds of plastic is produced each year. Petroleum is first drilled and extracted from the Earth, polluting local environments and communities and contributing to climate change. The petroleum is then refined at petrochemical plants that harm frontline communities with toxic air and water pollution and worsen the climate crisis.
  • Residual toxic chemicals from plastic leach into products which are consumed and digested, as well as absorbed by humans and animals contributing to a number of issues, including infertility.
  • After disposal, the plastic that isn’t incinerated or dumped in a landfill enters the ocean and waterways, or is shipped overseas to countries with often even less waste management infrastructure. 

What a Bold, Binding Global Plastics Treaty Must Include

While many governments worldwide have enacted legislation that addresses plastic pollution, these measures are largely focused on reduction (e.g., bans on specific single-use products or packaging). So far, there is very little comprehensive legislation that addresses the harmful impacts plastics pose across its full life cycle, taking into account extraction and refining, limiting the toxic chemicals used to produce plastics that make them unsafe for recycling and disposal, and incentivizing systemic shifts towards reuse and refill. That is why we need a bold Global Plastics Treaty that must:

  • Be legally binding,
  • Cover the whole lifecycle of plastic,
  • Have an open mandate to address any issues relevant to plastic,
  • Include transparent reporting, and
  • Include technical & financial assistance.

Take Action

Add your name and tell world leaders to support a legally binding global treaty on plastic pollution that addresses the entire life cycle of plastics, including extraction, production, transport, use, disposal, and remediation.

Last week, the UN held the final Expert Group meeting on marine litter and microplastics, one of the last formal steps before United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) discusses creation of an international negotiating committee.

Support is growing internationally for the global treaty on plastic pollution, even though the US and the UK have failed to signal their participation. Learn more about the meeting in the new issue of Progress on Plastics, summarizing the meeting, available here.

UNEA and parties to several global environmental instruments have taken an interest in plastic pollution, recognizing it as a serious and rapidly growing issue of global concern which requires an urgent and global response.

In 2017, the UN Environment Program (UNEP) formed an Ad-Hoc Open-Ended Expert Group (AHEG) of member states, industry representatives, and other stakeholder experts to analyze information and report options for combating marine plastic litter and microplastics.

Updates have previously been reported from the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd meetings, and the AHEG met for the 4th time on 9 – 13 November 2020, in a virtual environment.

Members of the #breakfreefromplastic movement, including Plastic Pollution Coalition, and broader stakeholder groups have been active throughout these meetings to prioritize the urgency of the global plastic crisis and the harms exacted across the full supply chain and life cycle of plastics.

The more than 1,800 worldwide member organizations of #breakfreefromplastic have endorsed the pursuit of a new legally binding global governance structure for plastics, based on a four-pillar strategy.

Read Past and Current Issues of Progress on Plastics.

UNEA-4 Agreement Does Not Deliver at Scale and Urgency Needed

Nairobi, Kenya – At the 4th session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-4), member states of the UN Environment Programme failed to meet expectations to confront the ever-growing plastic-pollution crisis threatening our waterways, ecosystems, and health.

At UNEA-4, member states considered several resolutions designed to increase international action to halt plastic pollution. The first, proposed by Norway, Japan, and Sri Lanka, sought to strengthen international cooperation and coordination on marine plastic litter and microplastics, including through considering a possible new legally binding agreement. The second, proposed by India, sought to promote the phase-out single-use plastics worldwide.

Despite sweeping agreement by the majority of countries that urgent, ambitious, and global action is needed to address plastic across its lifecycle – from production to use to disposal – a small minority led by the United States (US) blocked ambitious text and delayed negotiations. Backed by a strong industry lobby with over $200 billion invested in petrochemical buildout to drastically expand plastic production, the US delegation was able to thwart progress and water down the resolutions, actions that were strongly opposed by many countries, including those most affected by plastic pollution, such as the Pacific Island States, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Senegal. Action-oriented member states did secure, however, the basic elements that will allow the building of future actions, based on the common vision that emerged among the vast majority of countries during the discussions. Most importantly, the mandate of the expert working group established at UNEA-3 was extended to continue its work, including by identifying technical and financial resources or mechanisms, and to report on its progress in considering response options at UNEA-5 in February 2021. The extension of this mandate keeps plastic on the international agenda and provides an opportunity to consider a future legally binding agreement. 

Despite the overall disappointing outcome in not making progress at the speed and scale needed, countries remain committed to pursuing international cooperation and coordination to address the plastic-pollution crisis.

David Azoulay, Environmental Health Director, Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL): “At UNEA-4, the vast majority of countries came together to develop a vision for the future of global plastic governance. Seeing the US, guided by the interests of the fracking and petrochemical industry, leading efforts to sabotage that vision is disheartening. But the growing appetite for better global plastic governance is evident, and this UNEA ensured the continuation of a process on which countries can build the future global framework to stop plastic pollution.”

Von Hernandez, Global Coordinator, Break Free From Plastic: “Corporations should hear the call coming out of UNEA-4: Requirements for reduction are coming. They should support community zero-waste systems around the world by reducing the production of unmanageable waste and reinventing delivery structures for products to eliminate plastic packaging. We have a lot of collaborative work to do in the coming years to create policies and markets that are healthy, responsive to local needs, and based on systems of refill and reuse.” 

Christopher Chin, Executive Director of The Center for Oceanic Awareness, Research, and Education (COARE): “Waste management is an important part of the conversation, but it cannot effectively address the deluge of plastic pollution we all face. We cannot recycle our way out of this problem. While we are certainly disappointed that progress was stifled by industry-embracing obstacles imposed by a distinct few member states, we are encouraged by the otherwise near-universal support for forward action towards upstream solutions and discussions towards solutions considering the full lifecycle of plastics, including a potential new legally binding framework.” 

Fabienne McLellan, Director International Relations, OceanCare: “One cannot help but note that we are heading for yet another failure by some governments to take real action due to nationalistic agendas. The problem is easy to understand, there is enough data, but the blockade of a few, powerful countries isn’t. We are leaving UNEA-4 without a strong decision and are sending a weak signal to the private sector. This is troubling as there should be clear guidance from international bodies towards a sustainable circular economy, a full lifecycle approach, and a call for a global governance architecture.”

Delphine Lévi Alvarès, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) and Zero Waste Europe: “The need to confront marine plastic pollution and single-use plastics are undeniably at the top of the global policy agenda, and Zero Waste initiatives at the local level have received recognition. The details of the final resolutions may be weak, but governments have real policy examples to follow, including the recently-adopted EU Directive on single-use plastics and bans on wasteful plastic products at the local and national level. These policies address the production and consumption drivers of plastic pollution. We salute the efforts of the countries and regions who stood strong in this debate in seeking equally ambitious action at the global level.” 

Tim Grabiel, Senior Lawyer, Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA): “Future generations will confront many indescribable problems due to a lack of political will to tackle head on the environmental issues of our time. We do not need to add plastic pollution to that list. Although we regret the lack of urgency displayed by a few bad-faith actors, we are encouraged that the expert group will be reconvened and expect progressive countries to use it as a launch pad for meaningful action at the next UNEA in February 2021.”

Tadesse Amera, CoChair, International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), Ethiopia: “As the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries are gearing up to escalate plastic and chemical production, governments at UNEA-4 could not curb the power of these private interests. This is concerning as the volume of plastic pollution will grow too. Plastics are toxic. Toxic chemicals -linked to cancer and early puberty in children- are used to make plastics, yet this issue was neglected in the final UNEA-4 outcome. These toxic chemicals additives in plastic are released later, creating toxic liabilities for chemical and plastic producers. In Africa, imported plastic products and plastic waste should be returned back to the producers to protect us from the toxic chemicals in the plastic materials. The industries producing these harmful chemicals should have an extended producer responsibility, and they should pay the costs related to their toxic plastic waste mess. In the big picture, toxics in means toxics out. We can’t recycle toxic plastics and pretend that the marine litter chaos is a waste issues; it’s a toxic product issue.”

Jane Patton, Director, No Waste Louisiana: “Plastic is pollution the minute it is made. We must reduce the production and use of plastic across the board to protect communities and health. No people or places should be sacrificed to corporate profit or a culture of consumption, and we can avoid that by taking into account the full lifecycle impacts of plas
tics. We are optimistic about the ambitious steps our governments will take to prevent plastic pollution, including production reduction, phase out, and investment in zero-waste systems.”

David Sutasurya, Indonesian Zero Waste Alliance: “The plastic industry is polluting developing countries, where they have fewer options of non-plastic alternatives and are directly exposed to plastic pollution every day. Multinational corporations have systematically pushed out local industry that uses much less plastic, in addition to facilitating the import of waste into developing countries from the high-consumption Global North. It is unfair that developing countries are using taxpayers’ money to manage these wastes that can neither be recycled or composted. Framing marine litter as only a waste management problem is nonsense when it’s actually a reflection of the industry’s refusal to take responsibility on the plastic pollution crisis. Multinational companies, together with national plastic industries, are now actively blocking any government effort to hold them accountable and responsible for the waste of their product, including significant reduction of its uses. Developed countries and industries have to be responsible for the waste problem that they create in developing countries and should support legally binding measures on reduction of global plastic production and consumption.”