Will a global instrument on plastics help end plastic pollution and marine litter?

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What is a Global Treaty on Plastics?

The Global Plastics Treaty is a proposal to provide a framework for controlling the negative impacts of plastics on the planet.

Studies show that over 400 million tonnes of plastics are produced every year with only about 9% of this being recycled. This has a huge negative impact on the environment and the global society.

The United Nations member states will have an opportunity to discuss the proposal to develop a Global Plastics Treaty at the fifth United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA 5) which will be held in Nairobi, Kenya, from 28th February to 2nd March 2022.

During this time, the member states will likely pass a resolution establishing an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) to develop this treaty. They will also agree on a mandate for this committee. It is expected that the treaty will be ready for adoption when the members states meet again in 2024 for UNEA 6, exactly ten years since the discussions on plastics at this level began.

What has been done?

The discussions began in 2014 when the first UNEA was held in Nairobi. Since then, there has been four plastics resolutions passed.

In the first resolution passed in 2014, the member states agreed that plastics was an emerging global threat. The second resolution was more concerned about exploring the regional governance strategies and amplified the efforts of the ASEAN Framework of Action on Marine Debris, Ocean Plastics Charter, Osaka Blue Ocean Vision, the Bangkok Declaration on Combating Marine Debris and APEC Roadmap on Marine Debris.

It is however in 2017 that the member states made progress by recognizing the inadequacies of the regional strategies and formed through a UNEA 3/7 resolution an Ad Hoc Open-Ended Expert Group to provide recommendations for a global solution. This subsequently gained momentum in 2019 at UNEA 4 when the member states agreed to strengthen the work of this expert group and prioritized work towards a treaty.

Since then, UNEA 5 has been staggered due to Corvid restrictions where there have been several high-level discussions where states and other actors have made submissions on what they would like to see in the treaty. Important of this includes the Ministerial Conference on Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution which was convened by Ghana, Germany, Ecuador, and Vietnam, and held in Geneva, Switzerland, in September 2021.

What next?

As a result of the work that has been done over the last eight years, there are now three proposals on the table.

One is a draft resolution from Japan that proposes a legally binding treaty focusing on marine plastic pollution. This proposal has been branded ‘weak’ since it does not make a plastic lifecycle approach.

India has made a proposal for a non legally binding voluntary framework.

The joint draft from Rwanda and Peru proposes a legally binding treaty covering all stages of the plastic life cycle with a focus on the adoption of a circular economy approach to plastics. This six-page proposal has received glowing reviews from several member states, civil society, and scientific experts. Among the states include co-sponsors Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, European Union and its 27 Member States, Colombia, Guinea, Kenya, Madagascar, Norway, Philippines, Senegal, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and Uganda.

In substance, the Rwanda and Peru proposal seems more solid and is likely to be adopted at the UNEA 5.2 plenary. The question that remains is how far the draft will be mutilated, given the other drafts.

What are the contentious issues?

First, because of the nature of global politics, it is unlikely that the negotiations on the substance of the global instrument are going to be smooth.

Alongside India, there are other states that will want a voluntary system. Japan will also need to be convinced that their proposal is well catered for in the Rwanda-Peru resolution. The first hurdle will therefore be to get these nations to support one resolution.

Secondly, defining the mandate and scope of work of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee will have its challenges. This committee is important in shaping the form of the global instrument and many member states will be interested in how the INC is constituted.

Other countries will also be worried about the impact a legally binding agreement will have on trade, given plastic remains a very omnipresent product and alternatives are still developing.

It is also possible that politics will also get in the way. This is particularly around the issue of financial arrangements. Already, South Africa has already voiced concerns, stating that the treaty will put undue pressure on states financially in a climate where Multilateral Environment Agreements are fighting for the same resources.

What would a global instrument on plastics look like?

A global agreement will no doubt have far-reaching implications on the whole life-cycle of plastics. It will impact production, consumption, and waste management. One area that will also be significantly impacted is data collection, monitoring, and reporting.

The instrument will also impact national legislation. Existing legislation will have to be harmonized with the instrument, particularly if the member states choose a legally binding agreement. States may even be required to enact new plastic legislation.

But perhaps the one area that will be robustly impacted is industry. The contribution of industry to the problem of plastic pollution and marine litter cannot be overstated. This is why Reuters is reporting that America Chemistry Council and Plastics Europe – powerful trade organizations representing big oil firms like Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil Corp, and Dow – are working hard to undermine the work of establishing this treaty.

However, the water follows its stream. This is perhaps why corporations like Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Co are now supporting some form of a treaty.

Will this be a legally binding or voluntary global instrument and does this matter?

According to the latest data at the Planet Tracker, 154 countries have shown commitment to supporting a plastics global agreement, including the United States, the world’s largest producer of plastic waste, which has previously opposed such a treaty under the Trump administration. China has publicly called for ambition in treaty development and implementation.

Despite a lot of optimism, it is unlikely that the resolution passed at UNEA 5.2 will call for a binding treaty that has legal consequences. Already India has a draft calling for a voluntary framework.

The member states will try to hide this failure in the language, perhaps postponing this problem to the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee stage.

Will a global instrument on plastics help end plastic pollution and marine litter?

The impact of the Global Plastics Treaty will be determined by how ambitious the member states want it.

Common with all treaties, the member states will have to sign and ratify the treaty. The treaty may also lead to the formation of a UN sub-agency or an existing one being tasked to provide a lead in implementation. This requires financial commitments and could take time to set up.

This means that in the medium term, the instrument’s impacts on the reduction of plastic pollution and marine litter will not be quickly visible. The Planet Tracker projects that the first tangible results will be seen in 2030 and only by a small reduction of one percent in plastic pollution and that is if the treaty becomes active in 2025. This will however grow to six percent by 2040.

If the other Multilateral Environmental Agreements such as the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 are also taken into consideration, member states will be asked to submit plastic control plans similar to the National Determined Contributions every five years. This means it will really be up to the individual countries to make ambitious plans.

Unfortunately, not all nations are equal. Some countries particularly in Europe, already have advanced waste management infrastructure for plastics. This means countries will look at different metrics for what they see as ambitious. One country may see less production as the gold standard while another may look at waste management.

Planet Tracker estimates that ‘even with a rapid scaling back of plastic consumption in the developed world, it will take at least 20 years for developed countries to reduce per capita plastic consumption to equal that of the Global South.’

There is also another danger that the treaty may be used by low- or middle-income countries in the Global South to delay progressive national legal interventions and investments in waste management and recycling to solve the problem of plastics.

In spite of these projections, a global instrument on plastics will most definitely accelerate a journey to a world where plastic pollution can be controlled. That journey starts at UNEA 5.2, in Nairobi.  


Betterman Simidi Musasia

Founder & Patron, Former CEO, Clean Up Kenya

Betterman is a sustainable public sanitation advocate and a pollution control evangelist. In 2015, after becoming extremely tired of seeing all the trash in Kenyan neighborhoods and hearing the authorities fake promises to clear the mess, he sold his trucking business to establish Clean Up Kenya. Today, the organization is a leading national sustainable public sanitation advocacy brand. In September 2020, he stepped down as Clean Up Kenya Chief Executive Officer and currently serves as Founder and Patron.


Clean Up Kenya was established in 2015 to advocate for and promote sustainable public sanitation in Kenya. Since then we have become the de-facto national public sanitation advocacy brand. We are also experts in community mobilizing for cleanups. We have done numerous cleanups over the years, some of which have been attended by over 1000 volunteers on singular sites. These cleanups are meant to increase visibility on the problem of waste and it is therefore common to see our volunteers in bibs with one message, ‘Clean Up Kenya’. At the core of our work is honest and actual engagement in communities – not PR events. We also run advocacy campaigns holding duty bodies, consumer brands, green-washing NGOs, and other stakeholders to account for unsustainable public sanitation in Kenya and the global South. We receive no funding for our work but collaborate with others on projects.