LAST week, I wrote about the ongoing 5th United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) and the clamor for an international agreement to halt plastic pollution. The UNEA-5 session was held last February 28 to March 2 in Nairobi and online. Up to the time I wrote last week’s column, there was no update yet on the UNEA 5 official website. Now, information is already available online.

In total, UNEA 5 concluded with 14 resolutions aimed to strengthen actions for nature to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDG’s are a collection of 17 interlinked global goals designed to be a "blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all." The SDGs were set up in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly and are intended to be achieved by the year 2030.

Among the resolutions is the much awaited treaty that will address plastic pollution. The world’s ministers for the environment agreed to establish an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to set the terms of a treaty on plastic pollution by the end of 2024. The UN will then convene a conference to adopt the treaty. Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), said this was most significant environmental multilateral deal since the Paris accord.

Amina J. Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the UN, added: “Today, no area on the planet is left untouched by plastic pollution, from deep-sea sediment to Mount Everest. The planet deserves a multilateral solution that speaks from source to sea. A legally binding global agreement on plastic pollution will be a truly welcome first step.”

Along with putting an end to plastic pollution, a second key resolution supports the establishment of a comprehensive and ambitious science policy panel on the sound management of chemicals and waste and preventing pollution. The Ministerial Declaration recognizes humanity’s failure to date to manage chemicals and waste, a threat that is further aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic through widespread use of single-use plastics and disinfectant chemicals.

What is the extent of the global plastic pollution? The National Geographic says that about 8 million tons of plastic waste escapes into the oceans from coastal nations every year. Plastics often contain additives making them stronger, more flexible, and durable. But many of these additives can extend the life of products if they become litter, with some estimates ranging to at least 400 years to break down.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), plastic pollution affects the marine environment. It threatens ocean health, the health of marine species, food safety and quality, human health, coastal tourism, and contributes to climate change.

The most visible impacts of plastic debris are the ingestion, suffocation and entanglement of hundreds of marine species. Microplastics have been found in tap water, beer, salt and are present in all samples collected in the world’s oceans, including the Arctic. Recently, microplastics were found in human placentas but more research is needed to determine if this is a widespread problem.