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In the Loop

Pause for celebration: A global plastics treaty is on the way

This development is a very big deal.

UNEA attendees stand up and hold raised hands

UNEA attendees react to plastic resolution. Image by Duncan Moore for UNEP/Flickr.

This article originally appeared in our Circularity Weekly newsletter. Subscribe here.

I take great delight in punctuation. Dots, dashes and curls are bestowed with the humble power to begin, to end and to control everything that happens in between. A beguiling semicolon can cunningly string two or three complete sentences into one; an assertive em dash can chime in with a novel (or snarky) perspective in the middle of a thought; and a humble period — what force, what simplicity — can bring barreling chaos to a graceful close. Punctuation is a powerful tool, deployed to reinforce the tenor or cadence of the words it contains.

This affinity for punctuation is probably what made me zero in on the gavel at last week’s United Nations Environment Assembly meeting (UNEA 5.2), in Nairobi, Kenya. At the center of this highly anticipated session was plastic, and the aim to establish an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) to work towards a legally binding global instrument to address plastic pollution. The convening brought together 175 U.N. Member States, including 79 ministers and 17 high-level officials, along with thousands of other participants in-person and online.

On March 2, with the decisive strike of the gavel, all 175 countries endorsed a landmark resolution to establish an international, legally binding treaty on the production, design and disposal of plastic by 2024.

Inger Andersen, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP), said the agreement is the "most important international multilateral environmental deal since [the] Paris [climate accord].” WWF called it the "world’s most ambitious environmental action since the 1989 Montreal Protocol, which effectively phased out ozone-depleting substances."

Whatever your preferred comparison, it’s a very big deal.

I’m usually quick to scoff at anything that feels too on-the-nose, and a psychedelic cerulean gavel made from recycled plastic is most certainly on-the-nose. The surface of the authoritative mallet looked like the swirl of marine debris through an oceanic gyre.

Cerulean gavel in foreground, person in background

Up close and personal with the cerulean gavel. Image by Cyril Villemainfor UNEP/Flickr.

With the whack of this gussied up gavel, the room erupted with emotion: a standing ovation, tears and embraces while masks covered smiles and muffled cheers. I don’t think any symbol in my arsenal of punctuation could elicit such a strong reaction or have a monumental impact.

The next two years will be challenging. The INC is tasked with completing a draft global legally binding agreement by the end of 2024 — and we all know how easy it is to get 175 countries to agree to things. First on the committee’s to-do list is the not-so-simple task of aligning on the goals that the treaty will commit to, which will include a full lifecycle approach to the problem of plastic pollution from production and design to consumption and enabling reuse to reclamation and disposal.

Then there are a host of other questions to answer: What will be legally binding, and what will be voluntary? What will enforcement and accountability look like? How will baselines and progress be measured? What will be measured? How will UNEP and member countries finance the transition away from single-use and towards a more cohesive systems approach for all countries, not just wealthy ones? What role will the informal sector play in this process? And how will the INC balance the pressing need for rapid implementation with the importance of flexibility and the diversity of solutions?

The list goes on. But for now — before we tease out the thorny, political complexities of bringing the resolution to life — I think it’s worth pausing to punctuate this milestone.

While the exclamation point may be ubiquitous in your inbox, it is strictly off-limits in the editorial realm. However if there were a moment to cautiously deploy this eager piece of punctuation, now might be a good time.

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