Story | 18 Mar, 2022

Interview with Joao Sousa, IUCN resident plastics expert, on the global plastic pollution treaty

The IUCN Ocean Team sat down with João recently to discuss what the UN Environment Assembly is calling, "the most significant environmental deal since the Paris accord". It is a Resolution endorsed by 175 Ministers and Heads of Member States which will create an intergovernmental committee tasked with negotiating a deal that will affect businesses and economies around the world when it becomes legally binding in 2024.

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Photo: Maud Fouchard

IUCN Ocean Team: What is the big deal – can you share with us why this news is so important?

JS: After reading the negotiated text, it is great to see that there will be a standardised approach to addressing a problem that affects every ecosystem on our planet. Of course, there are still elements to be clarified, but it is great to read that the draft notes concern the specific impacts of plastic pollution on the marine environment. For the past eight years, IUCN has focused on understanding the magnitude of the pollution, sources and their impacts in order to create tailored solutions for it.

IUCN: What are the next steps?

JS: To start with, the UNEA Executive Director will convene an intergovernmental negotiating committee in 2022. It is my hope that we will be able to create a treaty instrument where the link between concentration of some polymers and effects on the environment or individual level, is clear and visible, this would bring scientific validity to the treaty.

Also, we need to have a holistic approach to this problem. We will need to provide definitions as the text gets elaborated to become legally binding – what exactly does “the global impact of plastic pollution” mean?  Part of this is quantification – using harmonised systems and methodologies, such as the UNEP/IUCN National Guidance for Plastic Pollution Hotspotting and Shaping Action. To ensure the treaty will be effective, we need to speak the same language for prevention, measurement, implementation, management and monitoring.

IUCN: What role does IUCN have to help governments succeed in reporting on/implementing a global plastics treaty (researching, informing, capacity building, training, monitoring, and more)?

JS: IUCN is informing several governments now on their plastics situations. The IUCN Close the Plastic Tap programme has worked or is working across 17 countries in six global regions – in the Baltics, Caribbean, the Mediterranean, Oceania, Southeast Asia, the Western Indian Ocean. The work we are doing has generated data and knowledge products across many sectors – especially tourism, fisheries, and waste management – to identify the plastic applications and polymers and the waste management gaps that are contributing to the global problem. IUCN works with partners on the ground to determine the priority problems and determine the most effective interventions to advise countries how to act to abate the problem within their context. It is inevitable that plastic waste will be produced – IUCN’s role is to bring science and knowledge together with policy for action.

IUCN: How does IUCN’s current Close the Plastic Tap programme fit into the big picture of a treaty?

JS: IUCN takes a comprehensive “holistic” approach and we measure with a purpose: to determine the best ways forward to solve the problem integrating knowledge products to guide work, linking to the decision and policy makers, working the private sector, and building capacity for circular economy. IUCN is poised to encourage the UNEA Member States who have not yet followed our approaches to tackling plastic pollution, to get know their trash and what can be eliminated? What cannot be? What about systemic design changes? Bio-benign design. It comes down to many “Rs”: starting with REFUSE (to buy materials packaged in plastic if there are other options), REDUCE (reliance on plastic materials), REUSE (avoiding single use plastics and creating waste), RECYCLE (plastics should be recycled to give them a second life – and move toward a circular economy instead of continuing to manufacture with virgin plastics), REDESIGN (how can we shift the initial design phases?), REPURPOSE (what else can plastics be used for?), and  REIMAGINE (a world with a circular economy that did not waste plastics and pollute our rivers, land and global ocean).

IUCN tools provide the ability for baseline quantification and qualification – snapshots in time for a starting point for the treaty which will need to be able to see where countries are now, and how they will improve over time. National reporting is what we do for plastic hotspotting. Indicators and actions and instruments are part of the solutions we provide, to track progress. Leveraging most suitable technologies such as tools like Deplastify (to be released soon) is another key aspect of our work. These tools are able to promote the creation of national action plans to work towards the prevention, reduction and elimination of plastic pollution, and to support regional and international cooperation – IUCN is calling these BLUEPRINTS, which are regional and transboundary, just like the plastic pollution problem.

IUCN: How does the proposed treaty fit with a circular economy?

JS: Moving toward a truly circular economy for plastics – with linked supply and demand – to facilitate flows of materials that can be audited in a manner that plastic waste is a valuable commodity, needed for a circular economy.  Giving plastics value, if you will, is needed and circular economy is noted in the Resolution. If a binding agreement allows markets to maintain value of plastics (since we need to see plastics as valuable not as waste), this will benefit everyone. Importantly too, trade issues need to be addressed – importation, exportation and the ability to manage waste if it is imported – it is good to see in the draft Resolution the emphasis on “capacity building and technical and financial assistance in order to be effectively implemented by developing countries and countries with economies in transition.”

Our plastics expert

João Sousa is IUCN’s Senior Programme Officer for Marine Plastics and has worked on plastic pollution in IUCN since 2014, after joining IUCN in 2012. In the past eight years, IUCN has been able to drive much more knowledge about the types and amounts of plastic that pollute our rivers, land, and our global ocean.

More information

The new UNEA Resolution, ‘End Plastic Pollution: Towards a legally binding instrument’, establishes an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee that will develop the specific content of the new plastic pollution treaty with the aim of completing its work by the end of 2024. The future is ours to improve, we can indeed eliminate plastic pollution from our environment with a multi-pronged approach and international cooperation.

The draft UNEA Resolution text can be found here: UNEA Resolution.

Email for further information:

IUCN and the Treaty, additional news: “UNEA Resolution - ‘End Plastic Pollution’ - and IUCN role in implementation of the Treaty”