U.N. Agrees to 'Plastic Pollution Treaty' Path, Economic Effect Unclear

Representatives from 175 countries agreed to create the first international treaty regarding plastic pollution, which is slated to be finalized by 2024, the United Nations Environment Assembly announced Wednesday.

The announcement came following days of discussion between the representatives in Nairobi, Kenya, with the U.N. calling it the most significant environmental agreement since the 2015 Paris climate accords.

The resolution that was agreed to Wednesday creates an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) that will be tasked with completing a treaty by 2024 that would be presented to nations as a legally binding agreement to alter the life cycle of single-use plastics and increase use of reusable plastics.

"Against the backdrop of geopolitical turmoil, the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) shows multilateral cooperation at its best," said Espen Barth Eide, the president of UNEA-5 and Norway's minister for climate and the environment. "Plastic pollution has grown into an epidemic. With today's resolution, we are officially on track for a cure."

As the INC works to create the treaty, the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) will hold parallel sessions to encourage international cooperation to move away from single-use plastics and share technology and knowledge of renewable and recyclable materials.

"Today marks a triumph by planet Earth over single-use plastics," said Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP. "This is the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the Paris accord. It is an insurance policy for this generation and future ones, so they may live with plastic and not be doomed by it."

Science.org estimates that 11 million tons of plastic waste enters the ocean every year, and the UNEP cited a study that showed at least 800 marine and coastal species are impacted by pollution, ingestion or other dangers presented by the plastics.

The treaty would be the first international agreement to address the entire life cycle of a pollutant like plastics, which create greenhouse gasses when they are produced and when they end up in a landfill or are incinerated.

The proposal agreed to Wednesday was a combination of several that had been proposed earlier in meetings, including elements proposed by Peru, Rwanda and Japan, The New York Times reported.

"The world has come together to act against plastic pollution—a serious threat to our planet. International partnerships will be crucial in tackling a problem that affects all of us, and the progress made at UNEA reflects this spirit of collaboration," said Dr. Jeanne d'Arc Mujawamariya, Rwanda's minister of environment. "We look forward to working with the INC and are optimistic about the opportunity to create a legally binding treaty as a framework for national ambition-setting, monitoring, investment and knowledge transfer to end plastic pollution."

The Times also reported that the negotiations saw objections from countries that produce significant amounts of plastics, including the U.S., Japan and India, among others. Until a finalized version of the treaty is presented, it is unknown what impact it could have on the economies of those countries that rely on the production and use of plastics.

Update 3/2/22 3:30 p.m. ET: This story has been updated with additional context and information.

United Nations Climate Plastics Pollution Treaty Agreement
The U.N. Environment Assembly agreed Wednesday to create a treaty by 2024 to curb global plastics pollution. Above, a 30-foot monument themed "turn off the plastics tap" by Canadian activist and artist Benjamin von Wong using plastic waste retrieved from Nairobi, Kenya's largest slum, Kibera, stands outside the venue of the Fifth Session of the United Nations Environment Assembly at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Headquarters in Nairobi on February 22. Tony Karumba/AFP via Getty Images