“This is just an amazing show of what the world can do when we work together,” said U.S. delegate Monica Medina, the assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs. Choking back tears, she added, “It is the beginning of the end of the scourge of plastic on this planet. … I think we will look back on this as a day for our children and grandchildren.”
“The high and rapidly increasing levels of plastic pollution represent a serious environmental problem at a global scale,” noted the U.N. resolution, which also acknowledged “the urgent need to strengthen global coordination, cooperation and governance to take immediate actions toward the long-term elimination of plastic pollution.”
Some countries, states and municipalities have taken action to curb plastic waste. Rwanda, for instance, has had a ban on plastic bags for more than a decade. In the United States, Sens. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) have led congressional efforts on plastic pollution, including the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act, which President Donald Trump signed into law in 2020. But this latest move is the most concerted international effort yet to tackle the problem of plastic pollution.
Environmental activists and industry representatives alike welcomed the agreement. “It has all the critical components we thought were necessary at this stage in the process,” said Erin Simon, the head of plastic waste and business at the World Wildlife Fund. In a statement, the International Council of Chemical Associations, a trade association, wrote, “We commend the governments that spent long days finding common ground to develop a meaningful resolution to address plastic pollution.”
The U.N. resolution was years in the making, said David Azoulay, a lawyer at the Center for International Environmental Law. He says he remembers the idea first surfacing at the 2016 iteration of the U.N. Environment Assembly in the context of marine plastic. “Envisioning a treaty was unthinkable,” Azoulay said. But, he added, Wednesday’s resolution has gone even beyond that early focus.
“There were efforts to weaken the language on health that failed,” said Bjorn Beeler, the international coordinator at the International Pollutants Elimination Network, an advocacy and research group. Although he said he would have liked a more explicit mention of the chemical additives in plastics, that language was “negotiated out.” An aspect about which Simon is excited is the call for national action plans from each participating country. More harmonized and standard data is “critical,” she said but acknowledged that “the proof is in the action we take from here on out.”
The U.N. negotiating committee will have a multitude of specifics to wade through in a relatively short time. Among the many items, any treaty will have to tackle reporting standards, financing mechanisms and, perhaps the thorniest issue, plastic production. “The million-dollar question is how much we’ll talk about reducing the production of virgin plastic,” Azoulay said.
With such major hurdles left to clear, Beeler said he is skeptical that the timeline will hold. “As you get into it, it’s going to be a monster. I don’t fathom how you can get a deal within two years,” he said. “This is meaningful; this is significant. But this is really the first step.”