Governments from around the world are set to chart a path towards the elimination of marine plastic pollution at the United Nations Environment Assembly scheduled for February 28 to March 2, 2022, in Nairobi, Kenya.

Political leaders will discuss the path towards the first global treaty to tackle plastic pollution

The UN Environment Assembly could deliver a mandate for an inter-governmental negotiating committee to broker an agreement obliging all countries to eliminate plastic leakage, especially into the ocean, through national targets and plans for reduction, recycling and management.

According to the UN, there is an incomprehensible amount of plastic in the ocean with up to 51 trillion fragments in surface waters alone, noting that marine plastic pollution harms animals, which ingest or become entangled in it, while the risk to humans who eat seafood contaminated with it is still unknown.

According to 2017, up to 95 per cent of plastic waste came from 10 river systems, with eight of these in Asia. A lot of this stems from developed nations, who have exported it to developing countries to recycle or dispose of.

Scientists are, however, concerned about microplastics of less than 5mm, as these have been found everywhere from the remote Antarctic to the deepest ocean trench.

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According to the UN, while technological solutions to clean up plastic waste are proving successful and attempts to curb the use of single-use plastics are popular, the challenge remains to limit the production of the material in the first place, which is only a global deal can achieve.

The United Nations Ocean envoy, Peter Thomson, who will assist efforts on the treaty, said preventing marine pollution is a major component of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14, which covers Life Below Water.

He said the largest and most harmful fraction of marine pollution is plastic, which occupies 85 per cent.

He said currently, 11 million metric tons of plastic is dumped into the ocean each year and this figure is projected to double by 2030 and nearly triple by 2040, noting that as responsible residents of planet earth, “we cannot allow that travesty to continue.”

Deputy ocean campaign lead at the Environmental Investigation Agency, Christina Dixon, said the rampant over-production and consumption of plastics, as well as their myriad of toxic additives, have created an environmental disaster that must now be urgently addressed.

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“We are on the precipice of securing a potentially world-changing global agreement on plastic pollution and it is essential that governments remain ambitious on its scope, equipping it with a mandate to look at plastic pollution across its lifecycle and in all environmental compartments,” she said.

Director of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), Andrew Norton, pointed out that low-income countries have ended up as the dumping ground for plastics from richer nations.

He added that major investment and support will be needed to find viable alternative models for dealing with plastic that properly incentivise more sustainable and just practices in the future.

Operations Director of NGO Oceans Asia, Gary Stokes, said it was particularly important that negotiations addressed plastic pollution in the form of discarded fishing equipment, which accounts for around 10 per cent of marine debris.

Stokes said if governments want to seriously address these issues, they must look at the fishing industry and hold them accountable.