UN resolution could be 'tipping point' in battle to rid world's oceans of plastic, says top environment lawyer

Flow of almost indestructible waste into our seas must be stopped, say ministers

Hidden amid the international outrage sparked by Donald Trump’s latest foray into Middle-Eastern politics, the world’s environment ministers were quietly agreeing a United Nations resolution that could prove the “tipping point” in the battle against plastic pollution in our oceans.

On Wednesday afternoon, politicians agreed the flow of ocean plastic must be stopped in an agreement signed at the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) in Nairobi, Kenya.

Although scientists welcomed the message, many were unhappy that the resolution featured no firm targets or timetables for action.

The US, China, India and many Latin American countries pushed back against the inclusion of targets, while Britain’s involvement in the discussions was branded “irrelevant” after it failed to send any senior figures to the summit.

David Azoulay, a senior lawyer at the Center for International Environmental Law who led the involvement of NGOs, told The Independent that despite the “disappointing” lack of targets, the resolution was still “extremely positive”, and countries had taken an “important step that could be the tipping point in the battle against plastic pollution”.

“As someone who has been participating in international negotiations for close to 10 years, it isn’t that often we can say that,” he added.

Mr Azoulay identified the establishment of an international working group tasked with identifying legally binding options to combat marine litter and plastic as the single biggest positive to come out of the summit.

Tide of plastic rubbish discovered floating off idyllic Caribbean island coastline

“There was a lot of opposition to that when we started talking."

But he did provide a chilling warning: companies have made investments that promise to increase plastic production by almost a third in the next five years.

With an estimated 12 million tonnes of plastic pouring into our oceans each year, the issue has the potential to get much worse.

“There is a recognition (in the resolution) of the industry’s role… and putting the responsibility of the product on the plastic producers,” he said.

Elena Polisano, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace, told The Independent the announcement was a “welcome sign” that countries were finally “waking up to the scale of the problem”.

“But that is all that's been achieved so far. We have no targets and no timetable. We need to turn good intentions and ambitions into concrete action that both improves our recycling rates, and reduces our production of disposable plastic.

“Every month of delay means another million tonnes of plastic in our oceans.”

On suggestions that countries are free to ignore the resolution, Mr Azoulay agreed there were “no sanctions or international police that will force countries” to enact reductions, but the document indicated a “strong political will”.

“It is supported by all countries and the outcome declaration of UNEA was signed by all environment ministers… then it is up to citizens to remind those political commitments to their ministers,” he said.

“Governments don’t usually take resolutions lightly,” he added.

China is by far the biggest producer of plastic waste. In 2010 it is estimated to have mismanaged almost nine million tonnes of it, according to World Atlas.

With an estimated 300 million tonnes now littering our seas, it is estimated there will be more plastic than fish by 2050.

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