Has the UN helped put the world on track for a plastic-free future? 

A global agreement on plastic waste is seen as the most important green deal since the Paris accords of 2015 


Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta speaks during the UN Environment Programme at the United Nations headquarters 

A new agreement to work towards a global treaty on ending plastic pollution has been hailed as a major breakthrough by campaigners. However, there’s still a long road ahead. 

At a meeting in Nairobi in early March, the UN Environment Assembly adopted a resolution on plastic pollution. Delegates from 175 countries, including the UK, endorsed an agreement that addresses plastic waste and calls for two years of negotiations toward a comprehensive, international treaty on the full life cycle of plastics. 

Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), called the agreement “the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the Paris accord” on global warming in 2015. 

We have lots of work ahead of us, but it is the beginning of the end of the scourge of plastic

Over the next two years, a negotiating committee will outline the contents of a legally binding treaty that will look at how plastic is produced, designed and disposed of. The committee will consider ways to reduce plastic pollution across the planet. It will also discuss the creation of a finance facility to support the goals of the treaty and ways to monitor progress toward achieving them, including through national action plans.

“I think some of the thornier issues will be around what kind of goals will we be setting, how will we be measuring this and what speed of implementation is it that we would wish to see,” said Andersen. “But we have been here before.”

Public pressure

Public disquiet and impatience over the growing mountain of plastic waste weighed heavily on delegates as they laid the groundwork for a legally binding agreement to control plastics. More than 90 CEOs signed up to a joint call for a legally binding agreement. 

This included the heads of PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble and Unilever, responding to pressure from shareholders and consumers. 

“We are at a critical point in time to establish an ambitious UN treaty on plastics,” said Alan Jupe, the CEO of Unilever, “one that cuts down virgin plastic production, fosters collaboration for systemic solutions and speeds up the transition to a circular economy globally.”

US support was another significant development, in a policy shift from the previous administration. “This is only the end of the beginning,” said Monica Medina, the US assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental affairs. “We have lots of work ahead of us, but it is the beginning of the end of the scourge of plastic on this planet.” 

Ignacio Gavilan is sustainability director at the Consumer Goods Forum, which represents more than 400 retailers and manufactures across 70 countries. 

“The plastic treaty agreement is a landmark moment in changing our relationship with plastic. Collaboration and shared commitments are essential to tackling the plastics problem. Policymakers, businesses and consumers around the world must now capitalise on the momentum, working together to ensure no plastic ends up in nature,” he says.

“There are many components needed to achieve a more positive future for plastic. We need continued research and development to find sustainable alternative raw materials to reduce our dependency on plastics. Businesses must invest in innovation to improve packaging design and eliminate the use of problematic materials and excess packaging.”

Greenhouse gas pollution

Going into the summit, the main sticking points were whether any agreement would be legally binding or voluntary, and if it would address plastic production and single-use packaging design or be confined to improving waste management and recycling.

A draft resolution, entitled End plastic pollution: Towards an internationally legally binding instrument, said the treaty should address “the full lifecycle of plastic”, meaning production and design, as well as waste.

“This agreement by governments at UNEA is truly historic and I’m so proud that the UK co-sponsored the proposals and helped them get over the line,” said Lord Zac Goldsmith, a UK environment minister, who attended the Nairobi conference.

The UN says 400 million tons of plastic is produced every year, with that figure set to double by 2040. At present, only 9% is recycled. It is difficult to recycle, slow to decay, expensive and polluting to burn, and breaks down into tiny particles that enter the food chain and cause harm to animals. 

Plastic also accounts for a significant and rising share of greenhouse gas pollution. By 2050, plastic production, use and waste could account for 15% of emissions, according to UNEP.

Virginia Janssens is managing director of Plastics Europe, a trade body. “The resolution promotes the importance of creating a supportive policy environment that is tailored to the specific needs of our industry and value chain to facilitate our transition,” she said. “It highlights the benefits and necessity of active collaboration and dialogue between our industry and all relevant stakeholders.”

Business faces new tax on plastic packaging

Despite its low tax, pro-business credentials, the UK government hasn’t been afraid to use taxes to encourage companies to go green. The latest example is the plastic packaging tax. 

From 1 April businesses will have to pay tax on plastic packaging that doesn’t contain at least 30% recycled plastic; this will be set at a rate of £200 per metric tonne. 

Generally, businesses agree with the aim of the tax, which aims to reduce the use of virgin plastic in packaging, even if they are against the levy of yet another expense. 

However, this latest green tax is going live in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, with energy and labour costs having a significant impact on business and consumers. 

Call for delay

Jayne Almond, director of policy and corporate affairs at the Food and Drink Federation, has called for a moratorium on all new legislation, including the plastic packaging tax. 

“Let’s pause everything that’s not absolutely critical,” she told MPs. “There are some things under discussion we could pause. Consultations that are important but are not time sensitive could be paused, such as the plastics tax.”

However, the government is in no mood to change course at this late stage, so the tax seems set to go ahead. Ministers hope they’ll be able to point to a measurable fall in the use of virgin plastic to justify any additional cost. The government’s environmental impact assessment suggests that use of recycled plastic in packaging could increase by around 40% because of the tax. 

Environmental groups including Greenpeace have welcomed the tax but say that more needs to be done if the UK is to meet UN environmental targets. 

Helen Bird is strategic technical manager plastics at the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP). “We are concerned that there will be packaging which is unable to achieve this,” she says. “We need greater quantities of high-quality material to be collected and recycled so that there is enough material available. This requires improved packaging design, consistent collections and more people playing their part in recycling.” 

Recycling investment 

There needs to be significant further investment in UK plastic recycling, Bird adds. 

“This includes roll-out of recycling technologies to enable recycled plastic to be used in more food packaging, including enhanced sorting and non-mechanical (chemical) recycling, and for these technologies to be recognised by the regulators as a valid form of recycling.”

Another concern raised by environment groups is the high number and complexity of exemptions. This includes thousands of companies producing or importing less than 10 tonnes of plastic packaging a year and products that contain multiple materials if the plastic constitutes less than 50% of the finished weight. 

Ill-prepared

Even at this late stage, many businesses seem ill-prepared for the introduction of the tax on April 1. A recent survey by the Foodservice Packaging Association (FPA) showed that almost 80% of FPA member companies that sell plastic packaging and products were not yet prepared to administer the tax. Just over 50% were still unsure which of their packs and products are subject to the tax. 

To add another complication, businesses can’t register on the government website until April 1, the same day the tax comes into effect. 

Martin Kersh, FPA executive director, said: “HMRC should be concerned that if an informed group of businesses is unprepared, where does that leave the many businesses who we suspect may not be aware of the tax or, if aware, have given no thought to setting up procedures to manage the tax?”