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A binding global treaty to end plastic pollution would benefit Africa

World Environment Day 2023 is focusing on how we can #BeatPlasticPollution. An important step towards achieving this goal are the negotiations to reach a global agreement to end plastic pollution, writes Zaynab Sadan.

Plastic pollution is an urgent crisis threatening the well-being of our planet and our communities. Increasing volumes of plastic in our rivers and oceans are consumed by terrestrial and aquatic biota and have infiltrated the water and food humans consume.

The devastating impact of plastic pollution knows no bounds, with plastics now weighing more than all land and sea animals combined. If we continue along this Business as Usual path, plastic production will double, and subsequent leakage of this plastic into the ocean will triple by 2040. As Africans, we must unite to combat this global problem and demand action from our governments and businesses.

Thankfully, there is hope on the horizon. In March 2022, after years of policy advocacy and campaigning,  175 UN member countries unanimously adopted the resolution to end plastic pollution at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi. The time has come for us to seize this opportunity and push for comprehensive, binding global rules and measures across the entire plastic life cycle. To pave the way for effective change, we must draw on the recommendations outlined in a WWF plastic report, which highlights critical solutions to combat plastic pollution.

First and foremost, the treaty must include binding global measures to ban, reduce, safely circulate, and manage high-risk plastics. We must prioritise plastics with the highest pollution risks and identify specific products, applications, and chemicals of concern. Immediate global bans should be imposed on single-use, short-lived plastic products, such as cutlery, plates, cups, cotton bud sticks, and cigarette filters.

After an initial feasibility assessment at the global level, it was found that these bans  may be implemented without any overt negative environmental and socioeconomic consequences; however, there may be a need to assess any socio-economic implications at national level. Furthermore, it is necessary to ensure that any alternatives and substitutes to these products should be fit-for-purpose, suit the local context and prevent any further unintended environmental and socioeconomic consequences.

To ensure successful implementation, the treaty must be accompanied by ambitious mechanisms that provide technical and financial support, technology transfers, and capacity strengthening. We must pay special attention to the needs of the least developed countries and small island developing states, ensuring that every nation is supported in effectively addressing plastic pollution.

Most African countries are net importers of plastics; however, the existing collection, sorting and waste management infrastructure cannot cope with the flood of plastics entering the continent. The success of this treaty hinges on inclusivity and collaboration. While consensus is the aspiration of multilateral processes, policymakers must ensure that no single country can veto the progress of the global community. Meaningful consultations with stakeholders, including those in the informal sector and communities most affected by plastic pollution, are vital for creating a treaty representing global input and addressing local concerns, which is essential for a just transition.

This plastic pollution treaty is a turning point in human history, offering a lifeline to our planet. It is our chance to eliminate the plastics that inflict the most harm on our people, wildlife, and ecosystems. Furthermore, it presents an opportunity to shift away from the single-use mindset exacerbating the climate crisis. With this, we can actively shape a future that values and protects nature, fostering positive ecological outcomes for future generations.

Governments must rise to the occasion and raise their ambitions. The second round of negotiations meeting for the UN Global Treaty to End Plastic Pollution (INC-2) held in Paris from 29 May to 2 June 2023 has provided another important step forward in global efforts to address the worsening plastic crisis. The majority of governments actively called for global binding rules across the plastics lifecycle and many echoed WWFs proposals to tackle the most high-risk plastic categories. This meeting concluded with a mandate to develop a first iteration of the treaty text (a ‘zero draft’) ahead of the next round of negotiations taking place in Kenya in November 2023 (INC-3).

While tangible progress has been made, the world also witnessed delays in the negotiation process in Paris, wasting critical time. As we prepare for the next round of negotiations on African soil later this year, we must not see a repeat in delays to the process. While consensus is the aspiration of multilateral processes, policymakers must ensure that no single country can veto the progress of the global community. This is an urgent global crisis that needs an urgent global response

We, as Africans, have the knowledge and means to tackle plastic pollution head-on. The global plastic pollution treaty is our one chance to rectify the mistakes of the past. Let us unite, demand action, and hold our governments and businesses accountable. Together, we can safeguard our environment, protect our wildlife and domestic animals, and ensure the well-being of people and nature. We can work towards healthy communities and secure a sustainable future for Africa and the world.

Zaynab Sadan is the Regional Plastics Policy Coordinator for Africa with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and has an MSc in Chemical Engineering from the University of Cape Town, South Africa.


Plastic pellets on the shore
© Creative Commons
Examples of microplastics include pre-production plastics such as nurdles, which are pea-sized plastic beads that are melted to create many everyday plastic products.

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