The proposed global treaty banning plastics has run into trouble after Africa’s biggest economy South Africa deciding it will not support the initiative.
Since 2017, a treaty has been in the works after the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) established an ‘ad hoc open-ended working group’ on marine plastic and microplastic pollution. National governments will decide whether to begin formal talks at the second session of the fifth UNEA in February 2022.
International support is growing: around 70% of UN member states have indicated they may support a treaty of some form, according to tracking compiled by ENDS Report, an industry publication.
More than 30 countries, including the EU and the UK, have so far co-sponsored a motion to open talks on a draft of the treaty prepared by Rwanda and Peru that will be voted on in next year’s UNEA session.
South Africa has emerged as one of the biggest opponents to the prospective treaty. An investigation by the Mail & Guardian newspaper published Monday revealed that the South African government plans to reject the proposed treaty.
According to a leaked document, the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries is afraid that the plastic ban will make it harder for the country to, among other things, capitalize on the plastic waste trade. This is despite South Africa being the third worst offender on the continent – and eleventh in the world – for land-based plastic leaks into the ocean.
Campaigners are outraged. Greenpeace said in a statement on Monday following the news of the South African moves that Pretoria was “fully aware of the country’s contribution to ocean plastic pollution – we are the world’s eleventh largest contributor. Yet, they are hoping to derail the global treaty because it might stand in the way of them capitalizing on the plastic crisis.”
It added: “Africa’s rivers, oceans and communities are filled with single-use plastic waste. Cases of plastic waste dumping across Africa are on the rise. Plastic lobbyists are trying to undermine anti-plastic policies to flood African countries with plastic waste.”
South Africa’s argument is that there are sufficient existing platforms that cover the issue of plastic, namely the Stockholm and Basel conventions. Pretoria has affirmed that it won’t sign the new treaty.
The treaty in the works is not the first such initiative on plastics. There is need for a new treaty, proponents say, in part to fill the gaps between the current patchwork of voluntary agreements, regional or national laws, and existing UN conventions that target only part of plastics’ lifecycle.
For instance, the recently updated Basel Convention bans the export of non-recyclable waste to non-OECD countries and strengthens the prior informed consent process, the Stockholm Convention restricts the use of some hazardous additives, while the MARPOL Convention bans dumping plastic such as fishing gear into the ocean. But no single global measure tackles the root causes of plastic pollution, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), one of the organisations pushing for a new treaty.
Rwanda, which banned polyethenes in 2005 is said to be a key proponent of the new treaty on plastics. Three years ago, government and Parliament moved a step further, endorsing a law banning single-use plastics such as straws, coffee stirrers, soda and water bottles, plastic cutlery, balloons and almost all food packaging.
When you arrive at the Kigali International Airport carrying any plastics, you are given an alternative carrier bag and asked to pay for a cloth or paper bag.
In the East African Community bloc, its six members have failed to agree on a regional ban on plastics. A ‘EAC Polythene Materials Control Bill’ has been stalled in the regional parliament EALA as Kenya has showed no interest in the new measures. Other members have also largely ignored the moves, leaving Rwanda alone in the cold.
With regard to the global treaty on plastics, in May, the European Union bloc reportedly agreed to back the draft by Rwanda and Peru.
On the other hand, however, the US has yet to make commitment to back the Rwanda-Peru text, although the Biden administration has vowed to rebuild the bridges burnt during the Trump era.