About Sustainability…

UNEA-5.2: Some Key Outcomes on Nature and Plastics

April 05, 2022 Institute for Global Environmental Strategies Season 1 Episode 4
About Sustainability…
UNEA-5.2: Some Key Outcomes on Nature and Plastics
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode of About Sustainability…, Simon and Erin followed up with Andre and IGES colleague Amila Abeynayaka, an expert on plastics management, on some of the recent outcomes from UNEA-5.2, the second part of the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA).

At this year’s UNEA, governments managed to find consensus on 14 decisions and resolutions, and we discussed a couple of these, namely on nature-based solutions (NBS) and on plastics. 

First, we discussed the decision on nature-based solutions. We heard Andre’s insights on the concept, where it comes from, what it means and why it may have been difficult to agree on. 

Then, Amila discussed with us the much-awaited resolution on ending plastic pollution, which was another important outcome of UNEA 5.2. Apart from the details of the resolution, we also talked about why we are getting such a resolution now, its focus and why it is difficult to get away from plastics entirely. 

Throughout our conversation, we discovered that all these issues are interlinked in interesting ways. 

Helpful resources:

About our guest:

Amila Abeynayaka is a Policy Researcher in the IGES Centre Collaborating with UNEP on Environmental Technologies (CCET) and part of the Sustainable Consumption and Production team at IGES. 

About this podcast:
 

"About Sustainability..." is a podcast brought to you by the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES), an environmental policy think-tank based in Hayama, Japan. IGES experts are concerned with environmental and sustainability challenges including, but not limited to, climate change; biodiversity and ecosystems; sustainable consumption and production; the Sustainable Development Goals; and overarching governance issues. Harnessing this expertise, the podcast serves to discuss and draw attention to contemporary issues and events relevant to sustainability with a frank reflective discussion from both within and beyond the Institute.

Everything shared on the podcast will be off-the-cuff discussion, and any viewpoints expressed are those held by the speaker at the time of recording. They are not necessarily official IGES positions.

Simon:

Hello and welcome to this episode of About Sustainability... the IGES Podcast. Today, Erin and I followed up with André and Amila on some of the recent outcomes from UNEA-5.2, the second part of the fifth United Nations Environment Assembly. For a quick review on what UNEA is all about, check out our episode, "What is UNEA-5.2?" At this year's UNEA, governments managed to find consensus on 14 decisions and resolutions. We can expect this to move the environmental agenda forward on key issues. We discussed three of those 14 decisions and resolutions. First, we discussed the decision on nature-based solutions. We heard André's insights on the concept, where it comes from, what it means, and why it may have been difficult to agree on. We then spoke to our colleague Amila Abeynayaka, who is an expert on plastic waste. He told us about the much- awaited resolution on ending plastic pollution, which was another important outcome of UNEA-5.2. Apart from the details of the resolution, we also talked about why we are getting such a resolution now, its focus, and why it is difficult to get away from plastics entirely. Throughout our conversation, we discovered that all these issues are interlinked in interesting ways. Let's check it out. A few weeks ago or a while ago, we had a discussion about the United Nations Environment Assembly 5.2, or UNEA-5.2. Now that has come and gone, and there has been quite a few outcomes from the UNEA-5.2 and we'd like to just exchange and discuss, or talk about some of them. And to do that, today, we have Amila Abeynayaka. We have Amila joining us together with Erin and André. And Bob is also there in the background. And UNEA-5.2 resulted in 14 decisions and resolutions, which is quite a high number. Among them, we have a decision on ending plastic pollution and to work towards an international, legally binding instrument. And then we also have decisions on nature-based solutions. And so for each of those decisions - there are several others, but we just pick a couple of them - we'll try to explore actually what was being proposed, what happened and why this matters to the governance of that particular issue in relation to the things that we are already working on. So why don't we just start with the one on nature-based solutions? André, on nature- based solutions, can you tell us what are nature- based solutions and, you know, where does the concept derive from?

André:

The concept "nature- based solutions" has been in the news and in UN discussions a lot recently, but it dates back a few years and IUCN, I think, is probably the organisation that's most associated with it. They've developed a definition over the years. That's- IUCN is the International Union for Conservation of Nature. And I won't be able to give you- probably not that helpful to give you the precise definition, but it's basically approaches to management, I guess, that help both society and nature and that use nature in some or other way. So that kind of taps into the ecosystem services concept, that use nature in a particular way to solve a particular problem. And I guess one helpful way of thinking about it is that, if there's an alternative, if there's a non nature-based solution to something, then nature-based solutions are relevant, you know, because then you're kind of weighing up a nature- based option against an engineered option or a human-made option.

Simon:

But why do we- I mean, if there are such nature- based solutions, why aren't they just scaled up or used organically where they are? I mean, why do we need a UNEA decision on nature-based solutions in the first place?

André:

You know, there has actually been some opposition to use of the concept, and I think that's part of the reason why. And this is not just in the UNEA context, but also right now, the subsidiary body meetings to the CBD [Convention on Biological Diversity] are ongoing and there's been some opposition there as well and proposals to, for example, focus on a "Mother Earth" based approach. So some of the South American countries are more keen on using something like that. And there are very slight differences in nuance, the different ways of seeing things are very subtle. But I guess the reason for having a united approach is kind of for the purpose of making the concept more widely accepted and widely known. You know, f there's one particular name that's attached to it, then it's more likely, or it may be more likely that it's accepted and used in government plans and subnational government plans and that kind of thing. So I guess that's the reason for trying to put it under a banner. You know, I guess that everything really works that way. You kind of need a brand of some kind, and that's the thinking behind this, as far as I understand.

Erin: Quick question:

What is the "Mother Nature" approach?

André:

You know, Bolivia, in particular, in the CBD meetings, which are the ones I'm more familiar with - I'm much less familiar with the UNEA discussions - but Bolivia in particular, which is a country where the majority of the population, the vast majority, are indigenous peoples and local communities, their kind of approach to biodiversity is much more, much more culturally rooted, I guess, and much more, kind of, closer to nature. And I guess further from the more western way of seeing things. And so many of the proposals, this one included, are- they're kind of, I guess, kind of more culturally rooted. And so the idea of a more "Mother Earth" based approach is just, I guess, sort of one that's less reliant on "Western science" - that's the term that's used. But it really amounts to the same thing. You know, I think it's just kind of taking greater recognition or paying more recognition to the role of indigenous and local peoples and their relationship with nature. That's really what it boils down to. But at the local level, it might differ, but the the concept is very similar.

Simon:

I think, Andre, you are also- with that explanation, you're sort of touching upon what may be part of the reason for why the concept of nature- based solutions has been contested by some governments and some stakeholders, right?

André:

Yeah, that's right.

Simon:

It seems there's a difference. I mean, the stark difference, you could say, is between viewing something as a "nature- based solution" and then viewing something as an intrinsic right of like a motherhood, or-

André:

Yeah, that's right. And I think that the idea of rights and human rights does come into that discussion, that sort of "Mother Earth"- more "Mother Earth" based discussion that I mentioned now. There has been some other opposition to the concept, which I think is more about the idea that the alternative term, ecosystem-based approaches, has been proposed. I'm not, to be honest, not that familiar with the history of this discussion, but I think that some countries are just more used to using that terminology. So they might not be any fundamental difference in definition, but they're just more familiar with the terminology of ecosystem-based approaches. And there are other terms as well that are used. So I think that some countries are just not comfortable with the idea of tying down- you know, attaching a permanent label to the idea, using that "nature-based solutions" label. They'd rather just keep it as a freer concept, I guess as you were alluding to earlier on. Really.

Simon:

I see. And so now here we are with a UNEA-5.2 outcome or decision on nature-based solutions, but not one on ecosystem-based approaches. So it looks like there is an emerging consensus to move forward with this approach, nature-based solutions. But right now, it's just on paper, right? Right now, we have this sort of tacit agreement- international agreement on nature-based solutions. It's all good. But then what do we do now? How do we take this agreement from paper to practice, to actually see how this can make a concrete difference to the general public? What are the next steps, in your view?

André:

First of all, maybe just to mention that I think the main purpose of- at least part of the purpose of the UNEA discussions were to come up with a definition. So the definitions existed already, but they were- they wanted to have one within the context of UNEA, I guess. And they do have that, but it's still not available online. So now, it's several weeks after the end of UNEA now, but the final resolution is still not available online, so I wasn't able to check exactly what that was.

Simon:

You could ponder why there is no final resolution out on the website. It could be that there's still some, you know - what you call it - "backroom discussions" around how set in stone this really is.

André:

As far as I know, the reason for the resolutions not being available on the website yet has nothing to do with the content. I think that's already been agreed on at the end of the meeting, if I understand correctly. But it's more just a case of getting the documents up, I think. I assume that it's purely just an administrative issue, that the actual text was agreed on at the meeting itself. So as far as I know, that's the case. But the real specifics of the definition is one thing, but the concept itself is a fairly simple one. And it's really just a case of, as I was saying earlier, nature being used as a way of achieving objectives for both society and for nature. And I actually mentioned in an earlier podcast, the ecosystem-based adaptation sort of group of solutions as being a subset of those. And I gave examples like mangroves protecting coastlines from coastal surges, and that kind of thing. So there's, there's a whole long, long list of those. But I think to get back to your question about, you know, the reason for having this this definition and how to take it from resolution to action, I think this goes back to what I was saying about nature-based solutions being sort of a brand. You know, I think that it's a case of having something which, at this high level - this UN level - is known, so the Parties become familiar with the term - countries become familiar with the term, and implementation agencies, and NGOs and all the rest of it become familiar with nature- based solutions as a term and therefore are more likely to consider it in their planning, their sort of area-wide planning and not just on biodiversity, but across sustainability issues and across development issues. So I think that, you know, that kind of applies almost everything at this level, I think. But I think it is relevant to the nature-based solutions discussion as well.

Erin:

So kind of backtracking a little bit, what did they actually decide at UNEA with respect to nature-based solutions? Was it a common definition only or was it like the recognition of nature-based solutions as solutions, or...? I'm a bit confused about that.

André:

Yeah, no, it was- there were a few things. Some of the things reported on that kind of stood out were the proposal to compile examples of best practices of nature-based solutions. And this is also something that's been done in the past, but perhaps not under the banner of nature-based solutions. And this is aimed at countries, right? So at the country level. There are international examples of that having been done already, but I think the proposal is aimed at the Parties themselves. And then, of course, there was the definition- coming up with the definition. Specifically, there was something on identifying options for supporting sustainable investments in nature-based solutions. And then there was also something on assessing existing and new proposals and criteria and standards and guidelines with a view to reaching a common understanding among Member States for the implementation of nature-based solutions.

Simon:

So hang on. So actually, the way that this could be understood - especially the last part that you just quoted from the decision document - it could sort of be understood as - okay. Even though the international community has a consensus on what "nature-based solutions" means, there's still sort of a halfway open door for continuing to contribute to refine that definition. That's almost what it sounds like to me, anyway.

André:

Yeah, I think that's quite possible. And there's also this issue of the term being used in different fora. You know, I was talking about the CBD meetings earlier on. CBD is separate to UNEA and the discussions take note of each other, but they might not align perfectly. So we'll see what comes out of the CBD discussions- they're not looking at a definition of nature-based solutions, but the topic is coming up a lot, so it'll be interesting to see how that goes and how the UNEA definition affects those discussions.

Erin:

You mentioned earlier that it's about kind of branding nature-based solutions, and that's one of the consequences of the UNEA resolution at this point. But I guess it's important to think about what this means for people actually working on these issues. Are there any impacts? Are there any, I guess, consequences for people actually working on the ground?

André:

As far as what it means for people on the ground, I think that, you know, my speculation about it being a bit of a branding exercise- and I don't mean that in a negative way, sometimes that the word is considered negatively- For people on the ground, I think often what this means is that it's a recognisable term that, for example, if an organisation or some of the implementing agency is looking for funding and they refer to nature- based solutions, it helps a lot if the funding agency recognises the term and also recognises the term as something which was important enough to discuss at a recent UN meeting or UN meetings in this case. So I think that's one important thing. And then also sort of from a public communication point of view - a mainstream point of view - having a term like that, even if people don't have a detailed understanding of it, it kind of brings together, you know, different groups of understandings - the public understanding and the political understanding and the implementing agencies' understanding. If everyone has roughly the same idea of what they're talking about, then it can - it can help a lot with planning and implementing anything related to those concepts. And this is a good example - this nature- based solutions concept.

Erin:

That makes sense.

Simon:

So Andre, I keep thinking about whether fishing or fisheries- Is that actually a nature-based solution? Like I keep trying to simplify because- okay, you, you interact with nature or you get something from nature that supports your family or society. So, okay, so fisheries, that's- that must be a nature-based solution. Why is it not or why is it?

André:

Yeah, I think this is the- this is something which I've only very recently started trying to grapple with myself. There's an interesting crossover and overlap and also a difference between nature- based solutions on the one hand and the ecosystem services on the other hand. So ecosystem services, which we've discussed before on the podcast - that describes what nature does for us. It's the functions of nature that are useful to human beings, right? And there's a huge amount of overlap between that and nature- based solutions, but they're not the same thing. So nature-based solutions is using nature to solve a problem, basically. You know? So, I mean, if the problem is the fact that human beings need to eat, then fisheries is certainly a nature-based solution. But there's no real alternative. I mean, all food is nature- based in some way or another. It's easier to understand what nature-based solutions are when there is an engineered or a non-native based alternative to it. In the case of fisheries, it's a little bit difficult to imagine that. I'm also tempted to compare wild-caught fisheries with aquaculture in a case like this. But again, I'm not quite sure how you bring the nature-based solutions discussion into it, because if, again, if the fact that human beings need to eat is the problem to be solved, and if the two options are wild caught fisheries or aquaculture... This is an interesting one because, thanks to recent technological advances, aquaculture is becoming the more sustainable option there. Wild caught fisheries is very plainly unsustainable and it's one of the greatest ecological problems that we have at the moment. Very recently, just in the past decade or two, aquaculture has become efficient enough and technologically advanced enough to be more sustainable alternative to wild caught fisheries.

Simon:

Right.

André:

Exactly how that relates to nature-based solutions depends on how you view the problem.

Simon:

But I guess maybe sort of the the sustainability angle could figure quite strongly. I mean, whatever it is that you derive from nature to tackle a problem, whether that problem is hunger or its flooding, it's okay that it's engineered, but it's nature based and it should be sustainable. Like if you just go trawling and you completely exhaust-

André:

Ah, right. Yes. For the basic definition of nature-based solutions, there are solutions that benefit both nature and human beings, right? So in that sense, no. Going back to that basic definition, wild caught fisheries don't benefit nature very much. They benefit people in the short term and medium term, but they don't benefit nature very much. So, yeah. So in that sense, wild caught fisheries are not really a nature-based solution. They're almost the opposite of one.

Simon:

Okay, great. So thank you. So I just wanted to ask one more thing maybe on this issue before we move on. That's- if you can say anything, Andre, about IGES work on nature-based solutions and what this outcome may mean for going forward with IGES work.

André:

Yeah, there are a couple of projects that IGES is working on now. So one of them is compiling, as the resolution suggests or requests, compiling a set of case studies on nature-based solutions. And the other one is actually drawing from that same study to inform the Asian Parks Congress on a set of nature-based solutions related to protected areas and other effective area- based conservation measures (OECMs). So there's two ongoing projects, both in fairly early stages that are very closely or very explicitly related to that. And then, in other ways, many of the other things that we do are related, but in a less explicit way.

Simon:

Thank you, Andre. And let's move on to another outcome which was highlighted as being the biggest outcome of UNEA-5.2, compared to the Paris Agreement on climate change back in 2015. And that is the decision to end plastic pollution or - I don't know the exact phrasing of the title, but we have with us Amila here. And please, could you tell us what happened on plastic pollution at UNEA-5.2?

Amila:

Yes, like, out of those 14 resolutions passed this time, the plastic pollution resolution [was] highlighted and received media coverage and attention. And I would say, in summary, at this time, what happened was that the heads of states, ministers and other representatives from 175 UN Member States have endorsed the evolution - so what we call the "plastic pollution resolution" to address the full lifecycle of plastics, which includes the three main stages production, consumption and disposal stages, covering all the environmental compartments and not only limiting to the marine litter, but also the air and terrestrial environments. So that has been passed. However, we would like- maybe we can a little bit think [about how it started]. So before UNEA-5.2, there were two alternative draft proposals.

Simon:

Okay.

Amila:

So one came from Peru and Rwanda, and there were so many co-sponsors, including UN [Member] States and other countries. It calls the establishing an Intergovernmental Negotiation Committee, which we call INC, for a new global agreement on the full lifecycle of plastics, based on this comprehensive approach to prevent the reduction of environmental pollution by plastics, including microplastics.

Simon:

Uh-huh.

Amila:

And the second one came sponsored by Japan. Here, also they call [for] INC, with the mandate to prepare an international legal instrument to address marine plastic pollution. So here, the highlight is the marine plastic pollution, by taking into account respective national circumstances.

Simon:

So as you are explaining, they were quite similar, but some of the differences related to addressing primarily the marine aspect as the Japanese proposal and then maybe more the full lifecycle as was the Rwanda and Peru's proposal. Was that it?

Amila:

Yeah, Rwanda and Peru's proposal- So they also focus on the lifecycle and Japanese proposal also focus on the full lifecycle. But the main difference is the environmental compartment. So they try to cover the whole- the land and marine and the other compartments. The one reason I see, a developed country usually has developed infrastructure for waste management. So in that kind of situation, there maybe not that much land pollution by plastics. So their main concern may be-

Simon:

Oceans.

Amila:

Yeah, oceans, because the pollution from any country can reach the other country because it's a transboundary issue.

Simon:

Right.

Amila:

But in the case of a developing country or some geographical regions, the waste management infrastructure may be not that developed. So in that kind of situation, what we know at the moment [is that] huge amounts of plastic land dump or maybe burned - uncontrolled burn. So in such kind of situation, pollution is not limited to marine. So more like land pollution and air pollution. So in that case, I feel the we can understand that proposal requesting to cover the land and the other compartments. That's my understanding.

Simon:

Thank you for the explanation. That clarified things, and it also sounds very logical. I heard actually that, in the very last minute there was a third proposal on a decision to end or to tackle plastic pollution. And that came from India. So it seems that the landscape became quite crowded and there was a lot of interest to do something about plastic pollution.

Amila:

Yeah, of course. Yes, yes. And also, like before these proposals, like, there were some doubts, like some countries maybe not agreeing to the resolutions. Kind of. There was some doubt. And same time, like, I also think that the Indian proposal on that recycling, kind of. So that's very interesting and very positive.

André:

Amila, kind of a double- barrelled question: I'm not that familiar with the resolution, but I understand that there is even though pollution- plastic pollution in general is discussed, there's still a focus on marine pollution. So the first question is, is that the case? Is there- is there a focus on marine plastic pollution? And then secondly, and related to that, do you think that a focus on marine pollution is partly because it's a transboundary issue, you know, in that one one country's pollution can be another country's problem. Do you think that comes into it in quite a big way?

Amila:

Yeah, of course. Again, maybe like my understanding is, like, let's say the point of view [of] any country despite the development (developed or developing), marine pollution is transboundary. So we need intergovernment negotiating committee. It's necessary to address because even though one country take the measures, maybe another country will be not taking the measures. So then it affects everybody. That point I can understand. And same time, like if you go for a non-island nation and living like with so many terrestrial boundaries and large rivers crossing the countries [that are] transboundary... So in that kind of situation, maybe limiting to marine pollution only is not enough. And so we need to think about the land pollution and the burning of plastics - [those] kind of other issues as well.

André:

Can I also just ask about microplastics? That was like a big deal a few years ago and it seems- I don't know, I haven't been following the issue very closely, but it seems to have died down a little bit. But how much are nanoplastics or microplastics being discussed as part of this discussion?

Amila:

Yeah, actually in the first proposal, microplastics [were] also highlighted, and then the outcome also highlights the microplastics. Maybe I don't completely agree with what you mentioned. Maybe a few years ago, yes, of course, there was very high concern on microplastics, especially focusing on the marine environment. So the scientists are measuring and citizen science and everybody are discussing about marine microplastics, but then slowly moves to the rivers and then now people are discussing and scientists are working on terrestrial microplastics and the microplastics in food and how it impacts the agriculture and the human health. Two years ago, even the WHO- so their report has mentioned, still there is not enough evidence to prove the impact on human health. But now there are scientific evidence that the human health also can be affected. So I think the people now already realise [that] the pollution is there and now slowly moving to more advanced studies - how to quantify the impact and, like, the dose relationships. It's like more scientific studies, maybe. So that's the situation at the moment related to microplastics.

André:

Okay.

Simon:

I just wanted to add one small comment on this distinction between the land- based and marine plastic. I guess, also, this decision - that it now affects sort of the whole life cycle, as you mentioned in the beginning - Amila, you said, to address air and terrestrial and oceans in terms of where the plastic was or is - that also gives you a leverage to actually do something to reduce the plastic that is produced in the first place, because that's- that's where we look at the land-based sources of plastic pollution.

Amila:

Yes, of course, Simon. The resolution also highlights the full lifecycle. It means the very important stage: the production stage. And not only that: the stakeholders. And stakeholder importance, which includes the important sector, the producers, and finding alternative solutions. And this means not only managing the waste, but controlling the production, plus finding alternatives and the circular economy approach. Like how- even though sometimes maybe the plastic is single-use - but how it can be reused for other purposes or upgrade and use for another purpose and maybe repairing the plastics and increasing the lifespan - [that] kind of stuff [are] also mentioned in the resolution.

Simon:

Yeah, because plastic is everywhere, right? I mean, many parts of our society rely on plastic products or plastic-type products and not all of them are ones that we can just quickly get away from. Is it?

Amila:

Yeah, exactly, I totally agree with you. On one hand, like the human habits - so it's difficult to get rid of and plus the alternatives. So we need to think about alternatives, whether they are worse for the environment than the original plastic product. For example, like, if we tried to replace plastic straws with plant based one, maybe the number of trees or that kind of important plant... So we need to remove from the planet to produce the replacement for the plastic and maybe, at the end, maybe leaking to the environment and creating nitrogen-based pollution, which causes eutrophication. So... And maybe increase the climate change and emissions. So we have to think not only the plastic lifecycle, but also the lifecycle impacts of plastics and alternative products to find the better solutions.

Erin:

Amila, just on the topic of alternative products. I've been seeing, at least in the last ten years or so, like this rise in so-called biodegradable plastics. And I don't know if these are actually plastics or these are something else, but are they relevant to this resolution? And I mean, first of all, what are they, and if you can tell us anything about, you know, whether these are viable alternatives, that'll be great.

Amila:

Yeah. So on the topic of biodegradable plastics, I would just bring in what is bioplastics. So bioplastics, I would like to divide it into four components. So based on the raw material and another one is based on the biodegradability. So first of all, plastics, there are basically two types. The first one is fossil fuel- based raw materials, and the raw material is bio- based raw materials. So if something comes from fossil fuel-based [materials], plus if it is not biodegradable, we call it "conventional plastics". And sometimes the source is fossil fuels, but it is biodegradable. So then it's a kind of bioplastic and it is biodegradable. But the "biodegradable" term also, I will define later. So but first, let me clarify bioplastics and unconventional plastics. Then there are some raw materials like starch, corn starch - So then the raw material is bio- based polymers, so then it is also bioplastic. But some- such kind of bioplastics are not biodegradable. So then it is non-biodegradable but bio-based.

Erin:

Okay.

Amila:

Then some of those bio-based plastics are biodegradable, then they are bio- based biodegradable plastics.

Erin:

Okay.

Amila:

Okay. Then the important part, the biodegradability. So, some biodegradable plastics are biodegradable in natural conditions or ambient conditions. But some biodegradable plastics need special conditions like special microorganisms or elevated temperature or kind of special environmental conditions to biologically degrade. So this is very interesting and some researchers found negative points on so-called bio degradable plastics, like maybe initially degrades to microplastic size, but then maybe remain in the environment for a bit longer period.

Erin:

Oh my gosh. Okay.

Amila:

But there are some biodegradable plastics which degrade and become compost. So then such kind of bioplastics maybe a better solution.

Simon:

That sounds very complex, right? And I mean, if you think about it, if we can imagine in our supply chain of using plastic in our society, I can imagine we have all different kinds of plastics out there, some of which are bioplastics and conventional ones and bio- based and biodegradable. And after we use them, they all become mixed up in a colorful bunch. And I could imagine that that would be a big headache in terms of how you manage those different kinds of plastics.

Amila:

Yeah, indeed. Indeed, Simon. Like, some countries sometimes just introduce alternative bio degradable plastics, but they don't have necessary facilities to measure the composition of those materials. So that's one issue. So often it is mixed with some more toxic or harmful chemicals and also some don't have the end-of-life treatment methods to tackle all the source separation and to handle these bioplastics, then it becomes more trouble in the recycling systems, like if the fossil fuel-based plastics - with some items which can be recycled - if it is mixed with biodegradable plastics, then it becomes more trouble. Yeah, and also the recycling codes, like there are seven numbers at the moment - so it doesn't define bioplastics. So there is a discussion that they should use number seven or another category. I totally agree with you.

André:

Amila, would it be difficult to switch to purely biodegradable plastics? You know, I mean, the obvious thing to do, knowing that the- I mean, the truly biodegradable plastics, not the ones that become microplastics and then persist, but the ones that are truly biodegradable, whether they're fossil fuel based or not. You know, why can't we just switch to those? Are they more expensive or is the technology not ready yet or-

Amila:

There are so many concerns. So maybe I will try to highlight a few of those. So one may be the plastic industry technology. So let's say if you have a single use plastic bag (fossil fuel-based, non-biodegradable). So the thickness and the strength and the flexibility properties for packaging. So those [properties] may be sometimes difficult to achieve with only using biodegradable plastic. So for certain cases, of course, yes, [they] can be replaced, but sometimes it's difficult. And maybe, when you want to improve the properties, then you need to add maybe some chemicals, which may be more harmful. So that's another concern. And then, the authorities should have enough facilities to monitor and measure and evaluate those new materials. So that's another challenge. And that's one side- the technological issues. Another one is, let's say, biodegradable plastic made from bio-based materials. Then how much corn, fields - which can feed people or the animals - need to [be] diverted into produc[ing] biodegradable plastics? So that's another concern.

André:

Right. Opportunity cost, basically. Yeah.

Simon:

I hear that we are actually quickly getting into a very interesting but also a very complex discussion around plastics and how it really permeates our society and how tricky it will be to find some solutions. I think nuance is, again, also a key word here. Just to try to pull our discussion just a little bit back to actually the UNEA-5.2 outcome: I wanted to ask you of your opinion. Amila, how come countries could actually agree on this? Because if you want to compare to other recent success stories and the environment recently, maybe we have the Paris agreement, but other than that, it's been in dire straits and it's been difficult. How come governments could agree on something like this?

Amila:

Yeah. It's kind of - as a person researching and working on the field - Yeah, I'm kind of happy about that achievement. But same time to understand how these become successful, maybe we need to understand the process, maybe during the last decade. So maybe there were activities in the global level, regional level, and national level. And if you go to 2012, the UN Global Partnership on Marine Litter and then 2014, as I remember, the UN Environment Assembly resolution on marine litter and microplastics; and 2015 G7 Action Plan; and 2017 the G20 Marine Action Plan on Marine Litter and the Ocean Plastic Charter... Of course, the 2019 Basel Convention amendment to control transboundary movement of plastic waste. And also then if you go to the regional level, I think you're well aware that ASEAN Regional Framework on Action on Marine Debris and also the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Roadmap on Marine Debris and also Caribbean community to address the plastic pollution and also the national plans. So many national action plans, which we were also working on, several [of them] like Indonesia and Sri Lanka. So those also kind of- so many activities during the past decade. But I would not only highlight that governing body level, but in the ground, citizen science and the big data, new dimensions, also very effectively contributed. People sampling microplastics - the citizens - and collect the ocean clean-up, the beach clean-up, and counting and reporting through the mobile labs. So for much of what we had like public awareness and the pressure on the global companies and are leaders, national leaders. So I think this made more aware[ness]. And also on the other hand, the scientists: they were providing evidence [of] microplastics getting into fish. Okay, it can come to you so it's effecting you. And the fishermen also started to see their fishing stocks, so they question why. So maybe they think, okay, maybe it has some relation with microplastics. Yeah. And also what I want to say is that it's not only certain geographic regions - like even the richest man may be worried about the quality of sashimi or sushi. So-

Simon:

That's an interesting point.

Amila:

Yeah. So I think the combination of both across the global level maybe bring a lot of energy to make this successful.

Simon:

Right. So you're saying, okay, so there has been both sort of official level with all kinds of governmental, inter-governmental at various regional levels, but also from citizens and from science and from all angles. Things have been gearing up to finally do something on plastics. All the while, probably in the last ten years, this problem has just become more and more visible and more and more compounded. So... So it's almost impossible to ignore.

Amila:

Yeah. Yeah, exactly, Simon. And also, like, maybe even though I saw some plastics or microplastics when I open or cut into a fish, I will not give my attention that much if I think as a public citizen, unless I have seen it in social media or public media or somebody talked [about it]. Then I realise. So awareness also played a very important role.

Simon:

Wow. So that's great. So that's really interesting. We can hopefully learn some lessons on what has been happening to hopefully take action on the plastics problem, to maybe also tackle other problems that are- that we are facing with regards to the environment. I wanted to ask just what's happening at IGES in relation to plastic waste and plastic pollution and what will the creation of this inter governmental negotiation committee - what will that mean for IGES' work?

Amila:

IGES was working a lot in the waste sector over, I think, about two decades. However, plastics became a hot topic maybe since the last five years and IGES has engaged in so many activities. From IGES' side. I see it's a really positive set up. On one hand, the SCP ([IGES' sustainable consumption and production team]) is there mainly to work on the plastic- related scope, but the water and adaptation [team], biodiversity [team], climate change [team]... because we know the issue includes plastic burning plus impacts on biodiversity and the microplastics in water... So many interconnected fields so IGES has a lot of the strength to tackle in a holistic way. So that's I think the set up in IGES is really positive. And if you go to, in detail, the projects: previously, a lot of UN agencies-attached projects IGES was working and now, we consider- we are in several panels, the G20 working [group] and ERIA and ASEAN region, and also currently we are working on Plastic Waste Management Action Plan for Cambodia. And recently the Sri Lankan National Action Plan has been launched and now the follow up activities, which I am also engaging, and Indonesia National Action Plan and the Myanmar National Action Plan... So so many national action plans [IGES is involved in]. And not only that, the regional and global level committees that IGES is representing. And I really see the engagement is high and the impact of this resolution is also, I see as positive. The local or national governments - so they already agreed, so then they need support in the policy advice and infrastructure and the bringing the stakeholders and the technology so that's [where] IGES can really support.

André:

Amila, are there other multilateral environmental agreements that deal with this issue? Like, you know, in the case of nature-based solutions, there is an entire convention dedicated to issues like this, and then they are also covered by UNEA. So is that the case with plastic pollution as well? Is that- is there a convention that deals specifically with that or is it only at UNEA that this issue is discussed at this level?

Amila:

In the context of plastic pollution, like there are several working groups or assemblies - for example, like the UNEP Basel Convention is working their own 2019 amendments on plastic waste. So there are ongoing projects on that and several governments and regions working together with them. And sometimes I see the Global Partnership on Marine Litter (GPML), so they have their own working group and connecting with governments... So it's also at the global level. And there is another one called UNEP Life Cycle Initiative. They are trying to quantify the impact of marine plastics in the lifecycle assessments, which need a global wide collaboration. However, like we can see those are like a certain area- so they are covering certain areas. However, this treaty tried to bring all the stakeholders and the full lifecycle and not only marine - including the land and air. So that's quite significant, André.

André:

Okay.

Simon:

It's great. What this illustrates is, there are several existing initiatives out there that commit the plastic and chemicals problem from different angles, including, for example, also the voluntary initiatives such as the Osaka Blue Ocean Vision and so on. But I guess the aim with this global treaty is to become some sort of umbrella treaty that that covers all of it. But the challenge will, of course, be to not cause major redundancies and overlaps, but to make the landscape more easy to navigate for all the actors that are relevant for the plastic problem.

Amila:

Yeah. And I think, André, like even nature-based solutions also can be some part of solving plastic issues - like, that's also included. And the chemical sector also, like, because plastics include chemical fillers and property changes for the improvements. So the significance is, like Simon mentioned, the previous resolutions and previous treaties, actions organised like working groups touch certain parts of the plastic pollution, some maybe marine pollution or some may be chemical components or maybe alternatives, like nature-based solutions. But this resolution bring everybody into one umbrella on the topic of plastic pollution, considering all the environmental compartments and the full lifecycle of plastics.

Simon:

We are barely beginning to scratch the surface on what is happening on plastics and what we might be expecting to be happening over the course of the next many months as the governments negotiate this treaty on plastic pollution. Maybe we should revisit the issue of plastic pollution more generally and also ask more in-depth questions on what IGES is doing. Well, thank you very much, Amila.

Amila:

Thank you so much.