Goodbye plastic waste - Is the new UN agreement the remedy for the ever-growing mountains of waste?

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In addition to the climate and biodiversity crises, plastic waste has also increasingly come into focus in recent years. And rightly so – after all, more than two truckloads of plastic waste are dumped into the oceans every minute. According to the UN, this is set to change fundamentally from 2024.

“The most significant environmental multilateral deal since the [2015] Paris accord”, Inger Andersen, Director UNEP

What is it about

Since 1950, the annual production of plastic has risen from 2 million tons to 400 million tons today - and only nine percent of it is recycled. Despite this fact, the figure of annually produced plastic is expected to double even further by 2040. The resulting waste can already be found in the most remote corners of our planet and in the deepest parts of the oceans. This has fatal effects on global ecosystems and ultimately on humans.

For example, substances contained in plastic can affect human fertility, metabolism and neurological activities. At the same time, burning plastic causes significant air pollution, and dumping plastic in the ocean puts over 800 marine and coastal species at risk of an agonizing death.

At the United Nations Environment Assembly, it was now unanimously decided to develop a legally binding agreement against plastic pollution. According to the UNEP press-release the aim is to complete a draft for this globally valid agreement by the end of 2024. It is expected that by then a legally binding instrument will be presented that takes into account various alternatives for the entire life cycle of plastics, the development of reusable and recyclable products and materials, and the need for increased international cooperation to facilitate access to technologies and scientific and technical cooperation. Consumer goods companies that use plastic packaging, including Unilever for example, had also expressed support for such an agreement. Several African countries such as Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda are already demonstrating that the goals of the agreement do not have to remain mere wishful thinking, as single-use plastic has almost completely disappeared from everyday life there.

Why is this important

Never before has there been a global, legally binding agreement to tackle plastic pollution. The great advantage of the planned agreement is that it does not only target the disposal of plastic. Rather, it addresses the entire life cycle of plastic, from production to disposal. This opens up opportunities to eliminate unnecessary plastic as far as possible through innovations in the design phase or to promote reuse. Ultimately, such a holistic approach is an important step towards a functioning, resource-conserving circular economy. Benefits of this would include reducing the amount of plastic entering the oceans by over 80 percent by 2040. At the same time, the production of new plastic can be reduced by 55 percent. Overall, this could save $70 billion by 2040, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent and create 700,000 additional jobs - mainly in the global South.

The Globalance View

With the announced plastics agreement, the international community has sent a strong signal against the waste of resources and excessive consumerism. The agreement will ensure that more is invested in packaging innovations and recycling options. At the same time, companies from the petrochemical sector are clearly marked as not future-oriented and will continue to lose importance.

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