By Zaynab Sadan
Plastic pollution is an urgent crisis threatening our planet’s and our communities’ well-being. Increasing volumes of plastic in our rivers and oceans are consumed by terrestrial and aquatic biota and have infiltrated the water and food humans consume. The devastating impact of plastic pollution knows no bounds, with plastics now weighing more than all land and sea animals combined. If we continue along this Business as Usual path, plastic production will double, and subsequent leakage of this plastic into the ocean will triple by 2040. As Africans, we must unite to combat this global problem and demand action from our governments and businesses.
Thankfully, there is hope on the horizon. In March 2022, after years of policy advocacy and campaigning, 175 UN member countries unanimously adopted the resolution to end plastic pollution at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi. The time has come for us to seize this opportunity and push for comprehensive, binding global rules and measures across the entire plastic life cycle. To pave the way for effective change, we must draw on the recommendations outlined in the WWF’s plastic report, which highlights critical solutions to combat plastic pollution.
First and foremost, the treaty must include binding global measures to ban, reduce, safely circulate, and manage high-risk plastics. We must prioritise plastics with the highest pollution risks and identify specific products, applications, and chemicals of concern. Immediate global bans should be imposed on single-use, short-lived plastic products, such as cutlery, plates, cups, cotton bud sticks, and cigarette filters. After an initial feasibility assessment at the global level, it was found that these bans may be implemented without any overt negative environmental and socioeconomic consequences; however, there may be a need to assess any socio-economic implications at national level. Furthermore, it is necessary to ensure that any alternatives and substitutes to these products should be fit-for-purpose, suit the local context and prevent any further unintended environmental and socioeconomic consequences.
To ensure successful implementation, the treaty must be accompanied by ambitious mechanisms that provide technical and financial support, technology transfers, and capacity strengthening. We must pay special attention to the needs of the least developed countries and small island developing states, ensuring that every nation is supported in effectively addressing plastic pollution.
Most African countries are net importers of plastics; however, the existing collection, sorting and waste management infrastructure cannot cope with the flood of plastics entering the continent. The success of this treaty hinges on inclusivity and collaboration. While consensus is the aspiration of multilateral processes, policymakers must ensure that no single country can veto the progress of the global community. Meaningful consultations with stakeholders, including those in the informal sector and communities most affected by plastic pollution, are vital for creating a treaty representing global input and addressing local concerns, which is essential for a just transition.
This plastic pollution treaty is a turning point in human history, offering a lifeline to our planet. It is our chance to eliminate the plastics that inflict the most harm on our people, wildlife, and ecosystems. Furthermore, it presents an opportunity to shift away from the single-use mindset exacerbating the climate crisis. With this, we can actively shape a future that values and protects nature, fostering positive ecological outcomes for future generations.
Governments must rise to the occasion and raise their ambitions. The just-ended (2 June 2023) meeting of the intergovernmental negotiation committee in Paris at the end of May 2023 is an ideal platform to solidify the control measures outlined in WWF’s plastic report.
We, as Africans, have the knowledge and means to tackle plastic pollution head-on. The global plastic pollution treaty is our one chance to rectify the mistakes of the past. Let us unite, demand action, and hold our governments and businesses accountable. Together, we can safeguard our environment, protect our wildlife, and ensure the well-being of all animals, including domestic and farmed animals. We can also work towards healthy communities and people and secure a sustainable future for Africa and the world.