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The official magazine of United Nations

international civil servants in Geneva

Plastic waste on the beach
New Year brings new controls on plastic waste and more local, national and global action
2 Jan 2021

Approximately 50 tonnes of plastic enter Lake Geneva every year, according to a study commissioned by the Association for the Safeguard of Lake Léman [1].

Most of this waste comes in the form of particles from tyres brought by runoff water, followed by discarded packaging. On average, people living in Switzerland generate 700 kg of plastic waste per year. Whilst the general recycling rate of more than 50 % is better than in many other countries, only 10% of plastic is actually recycled, leaving clear room for improvement[2]. The City of Geneva has prohibited the sale of disposable plastics at events and sales points on public property[3] since 2020 in an attempt to address this problem.

 

Plastic pollution is a global issue

Plastic pollution is by no means restricted to Geneva or Switzerland, it is a global issue. An estimated 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic products have been produced since the 1950s. By 2015, ca. 6.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic waste had been generated. Although 9 % had been recycled and 12 % incinerated, the vast majority – 79 %  has ended up in landfills or the environment. It is also calculated that approximately 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste will find their way into the environment or landfills by mid-century.[4] The Covid-19 pandemic has served as a forceful reminder of our continued dependence on plastic and emphasised the even more urgent need for us to strengthen our infrastructure for the collection and environmentally sound management of plastic waste.

Rolph Payet, Executive Secretary of BRS Conventions (The Secretariats of the Basel and Stockholm conventions).

Local initiatives need to be complemented by global action. Across the United Nations, Governments have come together over the past years to demonstrate their readiness to tackle what has become a plastic waste crisis. Already at the first United Nations Environment Assembly, held in Nairobi in 2014 , Governments recognized the significant risks arising from the inadequate management and disposal of plastic and emphasised that further urgent action was needed to address the challenges posed by marine plastic debris and microplastics.[5] Three years later, the ad hoc open-ended expert group on marine litter and microplastics was set up to identify potential response options and voluntary and legally binding governance strategies and approaches[6]. At the same time, initiatives have been implemented by the United Nations Environment Programme, the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, the World Bank and elsewhere, aiming to strengthen local, national, regional and global capacities to address plastic waste.

The Plastic Waste Amendments are a global legally binding instrument addressing plastic waste

 

The M-Cube was a plastic “sculpture” installation which was placed in the Place des Nations in September 2018 to raise awareness of plastic waste, on the margins of the Basel Convention meeting which first “decided” plastic amendments should be formulated and discussed.

The Conference of the Parties to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal is playing an important role in reversing this tide. In a landmark decision in May 2019, the Conference of the Parties unanimously adopted the Plastic Waste Amendments [7]. This made the Basel Convention the only global legally binding instrument that specifically addresses the issue of plastic waste. 

The Basel Convention’s membership of 188 Parties makes it virtually universal.  The amendments, which become effective on 1st January 2021, will bind almost every country in the world to the new obligations.

“The Convention enables all States to take collective action towards minimising waste generation at source and promoting environmentally sound management.”

Rolph Payet, Executive Secretary of BRS Conventions

Beach plastic pollution. Junk, ocean.

At the heart of the Basel Convention is a regulatory system that is designed to control transboundary movements of hazardous and other wastes, through a prior informed consent procedure. The Convention also enables all States to take collective action towards minimising waste generation at source and promoting environmentally sound management. This means that, apart from a few exceptions, all plastic waste and mixtures of plastic waste generated by Parties to the Convention, will be subject to the prior informed consent procedure, unless they are destined for recycling in an environmentally sound manner and are basically free from contamination and other types of waste. The procedure ensures that destination countries for potential exports of plastic waste are alerted of such shipments and have the right to refuse them.

The specified categories of plastic waste are also subject to the Convention’s provisions on waste minimization and environmentally sound management. By promoting responsibility and traceability, this will create the requisite conditions for the global trade in plastic waste to become more transparent and better regulated. It will also provide a powerful incentive for the private sector, governments and other stakeholders to strengthen recycling capacities. Moreover, it will help create jobs and economic opportunities, not least by incentivizing innovation, such as in the design of alternatives to plastics and the phase-out of toxic additives.

Plastic waste floating in a canal in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

An estimated 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic products have been produced since the 1950s. It is also calculated that approximately 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste will find their way into the environment or landfills by mid-century.

Rolph Payet, Executive Secretary of BRS Conventions

A need for further action

These amendments are only a first step and need to be flanked by action at various levels, in particular to strengthen the legal and institutional frameworks as well as the infrastructure of developing countries and countries with economies in transition. Under the Basel Convention, such work is already underway in a number of areas. Grounded in a firm belief in the strength of multi-stakeholder action, the Basel Convention’s Plastic Waste Partnership has been created in order to strengthen capacities to control the transboundary movements of plastic waste, ensure its environmentally sound management and scale up prevention and minimization. 

Plastic waste on the beach

Moreover, projects are also underway in various countries and across all regions – such as India, Ghana and Panama – to deliver crucially needed technical assistance to the Parties, including via the Basel Convention’s Regional Centers. Finally, a wide range of tools and guidance has been developed under the Basel Convention in order to help the Parties meet their obligations.

As with other environmental problems, real solutions at local, national and global levels are required to tackle the plastic crisis. When the Basel Convention’s Amendments become effective on New Year’s Day 2021, the scene will be set for decisive action at the global level, in order to compliment the measures  already taken or planned for the future by local and national administrations.

“As with other environmental problems, real solutions at local, national and global levels are required to tackle the plastic crisis.”

Rolph Payet, Executive Secretary of BRS Conventions

[1] https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/switzerland-recycling-statistics/45802874
[2] https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/waste-management_geneva-bans-sale-of-single-use-plastic-on-public-land/44914052
[3] https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/environmental-pollution_tonnes-of-plastic-trash-enter-lake-geneva-every-year/44627078#:~:text=Every%20year%20around%2050%20tonnes,a%20new%20study%20has%20shown
[4] Geyer et al. (2017), Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made, Science Advances, 19 Jul 2017: Vol. 3, no. 7, e1700782; DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1700782
[5] UNEP/EA.1/Res.6: Marine plastic debris and microplastics
[6] UNEP/EA.3/Res.7 Marine Litter and Microplastics
[7] BC-14/12
* Rolph Payet is Executive Secretary of BRS Conventions (The Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions).
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