As world risks being swamped by tidal wave of plastic waste, nations agree on plan toward creating ‘pollution-free planet’

AFP-JIJI, Reuters

The world’s nations vowed Wednesday to curb plastic and chemical contamination of the air, soil, rivers and oceans, calling for a steep change in how goods are produced and consumed.

Government envoys issued a political declaration outlining the path to “a pollution-free planet” at the third U.N. Environment Assembly (UNEA).

“Pollution is cutting short the lives of millions of people every year,” said the call to action adopted in Nairobi at the world’s highest-level decision-making forum on environmental issues.

“Every day, 9 out of 10 of us breathe air that exceeds WHO (World Health Organization) guidelines for air quality and more than 17,000 people will die prematurely because of it,” the declaration added.

It committed governments to promoting “sustainable economic productivity,” and to encouraging more “sustainable lifestyles” by making it easier to reuse and recycle products, reducing waste.

“What we need to do next is to move concretely to a plan of action,” U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) deputy head Ibrahim Thiaw told journalists on the third and final day of the gathering.

All 193 U.N. states are members of the UNEA.

“Some of the actions will have to do with the way we produce and the way we consume,” Thiaw said.

“Our models of production and consumption will have to change. We do not have to have models of production and consumption that harm the environment and keep killing us.”

This will require “very clear policies” from governments at the national and local level, said Thiaw, such as banning single-use plastic shopping bags.

“Every year we dump 4.8 to 12.7 million tons of plastic in our oceans and generate over 40 million tons of electronic waste,” the ministers said.

More than 200 countries signed a U.N. resolution to eliminate plastic pollution in the sea, a move some delegates hope will pave the way to a legally binding treaty.

If current pollution rates continue, there will be more plastic in the sea than fish by 2050, UNEP said.

Eight million tons of plastic waste is dumped into the ocean every year, killing marine life and entering the human food chain, UNEP added.

“There is very strong language in this resolution,” said Norwegian Environment Minister Vidar Helgesen. “We now have an agreement to explore a legally binding instrument and other measures, and that will be done at the international level over the next 18 months.”

Norway, which initiated the resolution, has seen the evidence of the damage the pollution causes first hand, he said.

“We found micro plastics inside mussels, which is something we like to eat,” Helgesen added. “In January this year, a fairly rare species of whale was stranded on a beach because of exhaustion and they simply had to kill it. In its tummy they found 30 plastic bags.”

China is the biggest producer of plastic waste but it has started making efforts to cut down, UNEP head Erik Solheim said.

“If there is one nation changing at the moment more than anyone else, it’s China. . . . The speed and determination of the government to change is enormous,” said Solheim.

He eventually wants to see governments ban and redesign some packaging.

“Let’s abolish products that we do not need. . . . If you go to tourist places like Bali, a huge amount of the plastic picked from the oceans are actually straws.”

Under the resolution, countries agreed to start monitoring the amount of plastic they put into the ocean.

UNEP said it has received 2.5 million antipollution pledges, including from national governments, municipalities, businesses and individuals.

They include commitments, which are nonbinding, to ban plastic bags, curb air pollution, or green public transport.

Some 88,000 individuals made pledges too, undertaking to switch to less-polluting fuel, for example, or to use less plastic and recycle more.

Taken together, if all the commitments by governments, businesses and civil society are honored, they will lead to 1.4 billion people breathing clean air, said Jacqueline McGlade, who coauthored a pollution report for the assembly.

Furthermore, 480,000 km (almost 300,000 miles) — a third of the world’s coastlines — will be unpolluted, and $18.6 billion (€15.7 billion) will be invested in antipollution research and innovation.

The assembly heard this week that pollution has become the biggest killer of humans, claiming 9 million human lives every year — one in six deaths worldwide.

Of the annual tally, nearly 7 million people succumb from inhaling toxins in the air — from car exhaust fumes, factory emissions and indoor cooking with wood and coal, according to a recent report by The Lancet medical journal.

Lead in paint alone causes brain damage in more than half a million children every year.

The president of the UNEA meeting, Costa Rica Environment Minister Edgar Gutierrez, lamented Wednesday that humans “haven’t done a good job” managing Earth’s natural bounty.

“The room we have for making more mistakes is very narrow,” he warned.