UN agencies at COP27 urge action to tackle impact of plastic on climate

The UN System takes a stand against climate change and the plastic waste crisis during COP27.

Plastic has revolutionised medicine, the automotive industry and food chain supplies, just to name a few economic areas. Plastic waste, however, has become a key driver of pollution across the world, overwhelming marine, terrestrial and aerial ecosystems.

On 10 November 2022, prominent representatives from the United Nations (UN) System met on the margins of the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) to shed light on the often overlooked but nonetheless crucial link between plastic waste and climate change-inducing carbon emissions. Co-organised by the Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions (BRS Secretariat), the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the event addressed ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by combatting plastic pollution and illegal traffic in plastic waste.

“Today’s event serves as an example of UN entities joining forces to deliver targeted policy advice and effective technical assistance to Member States,” stated UNODC Executive Director Ghada Waly in her welcoming remarks. She went on to note that international cooperation is especially important with respect to carrying out trade route investigations and mutual legal assistance, which can help disrupt the cross-border flow of illegal plastic waste.

Approximately 75% of all plastic produced in the world eventually becomes waste, which is particularly disconcerting if one bears in mind that plastics are petroleum-based and often illegally burned for disposal.

Seychelles is suffocating from illegal dumping and illegal burning of plastic as part of ‘recycling’ schemes. “The illegal trade, dumping and uncontrolled incineration of plastics is negatively affecting the pristine Seychellois ecosystem,” said Flavien Joubert, Minister of Agriculture, Climate Change and Environment of Seychelles, before laying out a plan to prioritise the use of glass on the islands. Key solutions that are in progress include: international cooperation and partnerships across countries and UN agencies, increased law enforcement to tackle illegal plastic waste, and the development of alternative materials like glass.

In the same vein, the Director of Hazardous and Non-Hazardous Waste Management in Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry announced the development of a new national policy that will serve as a roadmap for Indonesia to prevent the import of hazardous and contaminated plastic waste.

“Local problems can only be resolved by the implementation of global agreements,” noted Ecuador’s Minister of the Environment, Water and Ecological Transition, Gustavo Manrique. As a case in point, he revealed that, even though Ecuador has successfully established a national circular economy law, 83% of the plastic waste reaching its shores arrives from other countries.

The sentiment on the importance of global cooperation was echoed by the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Head of Oceans and Natural Resources, Nicholas Hardman Mountford, who referred to actions taken by the 56 Commonwealth countries to combat plastic pollution, including through the Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance, which focuses on tackling plastic waste in marine ecosystems. “The future economy is waste-free, circular and net-zero,” he said.

Nevertheless, if plastics are to have a place in the future, let that be in the form of reusable, biodegradable and compostable plastic substitutes. This was the suggestion put forward by Miho Shirotori, UNCTAD Officer in Charge for the Division on International Trade and Commodities. Shirotori underlined that trade policy can support a transition to plastic alternatives by adjusting tariff measures in the trade of plastic transports. “The future is not plastic. The future is plastic substitute, and trade can help the transition,” she said.

“Trade has too often been the missing link when tackling environmental challenges,” stated Aik Hoe Lim, Director of Trade and Environment Division at the World Trade Organization (WTO). Lim also divulged that the WTO is currently mapping out possible trade measures for governments to undertake in order to address plastic pollution.

Multilateral environmental agreements have a decisive role to play in defining what constitutes legal and illegal traffic of waste. BRS Conventions Deputy Executive Secretary, Carlos Martin-Novella, elaborated on the fact that “Before the Basel Convention Plastic Waste Amendments entered into force in 2021, countries had been facing a tsunami of plastic waste imports, which they had no real say in managing.” The Plastic Waste Amendments legally bind the 190 Parties to the Basel Convention to a strict control procedure with respect to the transboundary movement of problematic plastic wastes.

As such, the Plastic Waste Amendments are a stepping stone towards ending plastic pollution, a goal supported by the historic resolution to establish an international legally-binding instrument on plastic pollution, which was adopted during the fifth UN Environment Assembly. Susan Gardner, Director of UNEP’s Division of Ecosystems, opined that “Dealing with plastic pollution serves as an opportunity for societies to shift to circular economies, thereby addressing all three planetary crises: climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss.”

How combatting plastic pollution and illegal traffic in plastic waste can help reduce carbon emissions” was moderated by the Director of the Forum on Trade, Environment and the SDGs, Carolyn Deere Birkbeck.