The world just took a step toward ending plastic pollution. Now let’s seize the moment.

By Marco Lambertini, Director General, WWF International

Stop Plastic Pollution
© MAITE BALDI / WWF-France

Today was a historic moment in our efforts to stop plastic pollution. At the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA), governments agreed to formally initiate negotiations toward a legally-binding global treaty on plastic pollution.

This is a big step forward, and follows more than four years of campaigning by WWF and many others. More than 2.2 million of you have signed our petition calling for a global agreement, a call which has been backed by over 140 leading businesses as well as many governments.

The UNEA’s resolution is the clearest sign yet that the world is ready to get serious about one of the biggest environmental issues of our time. Described as “the world’s parliament on the environment”, the UNEA brings together representatives from all 193 UN member states, along with business leaders, environmentalists and civil society organizations.

Action to tackle the plastic pollution crisis cannot come too soon. The total mass of plastic produced by humans to date is twice as great as the mass of all land and sea animals combined. And plastic is everywhere: in the deepest oceans, in Arctic sea ice, even in our own bodies as it accumulates through the food chain.

© Shutterstock / Roman Mikhailiuk / WWF

We’ve all seen shocking images of beaches choked with plastic litter, turtles eating plastic bags or marine mammals entangled in discarded plastic fishing gear. Almost every marine species is affected by plastic in some way. But just as shocking is the plastic pollution we can’t see: in some regions, including the Mediterranean, the East China and Yellow seas, and the Arctic, concentrations of tiny microplastics have already exceeded thresholds beyond which significant ecological risks occur.

And if we don’t act now, the problem will only get worse. Plastic production is expected to more than double by 2040, which could mean the amount of plastic debris in the oceans quadrupling by 2050. By compounding other risks like climate change and overfishing, unchecked plastic pollution will drive extinctions and ecosystem collapse.

No single country can solve this global crisis alone. But a legally binding global treaty could make a huge difference, by establishing ambitious goals and a robust framework for achieving them.

Having common rules and regulations, harmonized standards and clear definitions will create a level playing field and ensure every country and every business comes on board. It’s an opportunity to offer positive incentives for those nations that take action to eliminate plastic pollution, and to hold to account those that don’t.

To tackle pollution effectively, the treaty needs to incorporate the full life cycle of plastics. Of course we need better waste management to stop plastic leaking into nature. But we also need to reduce the amount of virgin plastic produced and used, which means addressing everything from product design to consumer habits. A global plastics treaty can play an important role in accelerating the shift to a circular economy.

It’s also important that a global treaty respects the rights of the informal waste sector. Up to 20 million people work as waste pickers, and they’re responsible for more than half of all plastic recycling globally. The global treaty is an opportunity to support and build on this vital work.

The UNEA’s resolution is a major step toward turning a global treaty into reality, but it is only the start. We need to seize the momentum and keep pushing for urgent action. Every day that we delay, more plastic enters the ocean — where it will stay for hundreds or even thousands of years.

At WWF, we’ll continue to support ongoing negotiations for a strong, ambitious, legally binding treaty. Importantly, we’ll be supporting governments from the developing world to make sure their perspectives are heard and incorporated into any agreement. And we’ll continue to work with progressive businesses to build the case for a strong treaty that delivers on the goal of a circular economy.

We’ll also keep reminding governments how much this issue matters to our world and to everyone who cares for it. In this, we’re grateful to all of you who have supported our campaign so far. Each and every one of you should be proud of what you’ve achieved.

Now let’s turn the tide on plastic pollution, once and for all.

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