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Blinken and Andersen

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken—joined by Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program—annnounced the Biden administration will support talks to develop a treaty on global plastic pollution in Nairobi, Kenya on November 18, 2021. (Photo: UNIC Nairobi/Twitter)

'Encouraging': Unlike Trump, Biden Backs Global Treaty for Plastic Pollution

"Plastic is a global problem, and requires action and coordination at a global scale," said a Greenpeace campaigner. "As a major producer and exporter of plastic, the U.S. has a responsibility to take a leadership role."

Jessica Corbett

In stark contrast to the U.S. position under former President Donald Trump, the Biden administration on Thursday signaled support for developing a global treaty to tackle marine plastic pollution, winning swift applause from environmental campaigners.

"As a major producer and exporter of plastic, the U.S. has a responsibility to take a leadership role."

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made the announcement while visiting the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in Nairobi, Kenya, on the heels of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland earlier this month.

"It is encouraging to see the U.S. throwing its support behind a global plastic treaty," said Greenpeace USA Oceans Campaign director John Hocevar. "Plastic pollution is one of the most pressing environmental challenges of our time, with the impacts growing more serious every day. Plastic is a global problem, and requires action and coordination at a global scale. As a major producer and exporter of plastic, the U.S. has a responsibility to take a leadership role."

Hocevar also said that "our focus must be broader than keeping plastic waste out of the ocean. We have put so much plastic into the environment that it is in the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. Plastic is fueling the climate crisis and harming our health. The damage caused by plastic production and disposal is a major environmental justice issue, with communities of color often suffering the worst impacts."

"Voluntary measures are not going to be sufficient," he added. "We need to see real leadership, and that means initiatives at all geographic scales that will swiftly move us away from our reliance on plastic and facilitate a transition to package-free options and reuse. Plastic is a problem that must be addressed at the source. Until we stop making so much plastic, the damage to our oceans, our climate, and our health will only get worse."

During his remarks Thursday, Blinken also highlighted the importance of global cooperation on the problem.

"Today, we are... stepping up our efforts to tackle another pollutant that threatens our planet, plastic, by announcing the United States support for multilateral negotiations on a global agreement to combat ocean plastic pollution," he said. "By launching these negotiations at the U.N. Environmental Assembly in February 2022, our goal is to create a tool that we can use to protect our oceans and all of the life that they sustain from growing global harms of plastic pollution."

"It's crucial that the agreement call on countries to develop and enforce strong national action plans to address this problem at its source," Blinken continued. "Many countries, climate and ocean advocates, private companies, have supported this effort for some time. We're grateful for the serious work that they've already put into this effort and look forward to working with them. The private sector in particular will need to do more to cut plastic pollution and invest in innovation."

The U.S. diplomat acknowledged that millions of tons are dumped into the ocean each year, and "can take anywhere from decades to millions of years to break down." He also noted the serious impacts on sea creatures and humanity, explaining that "microplastics can tear apart animals' organs, clog their intestines, and give them the illusion they're full, causing them to starve to death. And because plastics absorb toxins, when we eat seafood, we're not only consuming microplastics, but toxins as well."

"We face a monumental challenge of protecting our oceans, but if we're ambitious in both our global and our local efforts, if we can combine the efforts of government and industry with those of communities and individuals, if we empower the innovative approaches that we've seen," Blinken added, "I'm convinced we can overcome this challenge... We can meet it together."

Erin Simon, head of plastic waste and business at World Wildlife Fund (WWF), said Thursday that "as the plastic pollution crisis continues to suffocate our planet, there's never been a more important time to show U.S. government support for a U.N. treaty on plastic pollution. Secretary Blinken's commitment sends a strong signal to global leaders that this is an urgent problem that can only be solved when everyone comes to the table."

"If we want to solve this crisis, we can't wait. A coordinated and ambitious approach from governments, businesses, and civil society that accelerates us toward a circular economy for plastics is exactly what we need, and what a global treaty at UNEA-5 can deliver," added Simon, referencing the assembly session that begins early next year.

Although Trump signed some bipartisan legislation to address ocean plastic pollution, Agence France-Presse noted Thursday that the former administration wasn't supportive of other efforts:

[E]nvironmentalists say that the previous administration stymied international efforts by opposing a treaty and blaming the problem squarely on China—a major source of plastic processing but of material often coming from the West.

In 2019, the United States did not join around 180 governments which agreed in Geneva to create a legally binding framework to regulate plastic waste.

The United States did not vote as it is not party to the Basel Convention, a U.N. treaty reached in 1989 that regulates the movement of hazardous waste.

Before President Joe Bide took office in January, a coalition of over 550 groups encouraged him to become the #PlasticFreePresident and take on the crisis through executive actions that would help "protect vulnerable frontline communities and marine life while addressing a key driver of climate change."

"Until we stop making so much plastic, the damage to our oceans, our climate, and our health will only get worse."

As Common Dreams reported last month, a recent UNEP report emphasized the need for "a drastic reduction in unnecessary, avoidable, and problematic plastic," warning that such pollution in waterways could triple by 2040.

UNEP's executive director, Inger Andersen, introduced Blinken on Thursday and welcomed his announcement. She told him that "your presence here today is hugely important. Your being here demonstrates that the United States wants to be part of multilateral solutions that will keep the environmental action up and running."

"Meaningful action on pollution will require us to journey beyond our comfort zones, engaging with numerous environmental agreements with business and finance, with cities, with civil society, with entrepreneurs, and with people everywhere," Andersen said. "As we seek to work together to address a triple-planetary crisis—the crisis of climate change, the crisis of biodiversity and nature loss, and the crisis of pollution and waste—we have a real opportunity to push full speed ahead towards environmental multilateralism that makes an impact, a positive impact, on people's lives."

This post has been updated with comment from WWF.

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