Landmark global plastic waste pact gets approved by 187 countries — but not by the US

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Discarded plastic, which floats in huge masses in oceans and rivers, is a massive problem worldwide.

Nearly every country in the world has agreed upon a legally binding framework to reduce the pollution from plastic waste — but not the United States, United Nations environmental officials say.

Key points:

  • The agreement means the 187 countries will have to monitor and track movements of plastic waste outside their borders
  • Even nations like the US who did not sign the deal may be impacted when sending waste to these countries
  • The new rules will take a year to come into force.

An agreement on tracking thousands of types of plastic waste emerged at the end of a two-week meeting of United Nations-backed conventions on plastic waste and toxic, hazardous chemicals.

One-hundred-and-eighty-seven participants agreed to make global trade in plastic waste more transparent and better regulated, and to ensure that its management is safer for human health and the environment.

Discarded plastic clutters pristine land, floats in huge masses in oceans and rivers and entangles wildlife, sometimes with deadly results.

Rolph Payet of the United Nations Environment Program said the “historic” agreement linked to the United Nations-supported Basel Convention means that countries will have to monitor and track the movements of plastic waste outside their borders.

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The deal affects products used in a broad array of industries, such as health care, technology, aerospace, fashion, food and beverages.

The new rules will take a year to come into force.

“It’s sending a very strong political signal to the rest of the world — to the private sector, to the consumer market — that we need to do something,” Mr Payet said.

“Countries have decided to do something which will translate into real action on the ground.”

Countries will have to figure out their own ways of adhering to the accord, Mr Payet said.

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Even the few countries that did not sign it, like the US, could be affected by the accord when they ship plastic waste to countries that are on board with the deal.

Mr Payet credited Norway for leading the initiative, which was first presented in September.

The time from that proposal to the approval of a deal set a blistering pace by traditional United Nations standards for such an accord.

The framework “is historic in the sense that it is legally binding”, Mr Payet said.

“They [the countries] have managed to use an existing international instrument to put in place those measures.”

German media outlet DW reported that the government in Berlin was proposing to go even further than the terms of the agreement, by banning all plastic bags.

“Germany should not wait for Europe and should immediately ban disposable plastic bags,” German Development Minister Gerd Müller said.

The agreement is likely to lead to customs agents being on the lookout for electronic waste or other types of potentially hazardous waste more than before.

“There is going to be a transparent and traceable system for the export and import of plastic waste,” Mr Payet said.