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New Zealand advocates ‘design of plastic waste out of system’ at treaty negotiations

02 June 2023, Paris France - An ambitious, robust and legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution including that within our marine environment must target the top of the waste hierarchy, reduce plastic waste, or avoid generating it in the first place.

This was the message from Aotearoa New Zealand to delegates at the second session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment (INC-2) at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Headquarters in Paris, France.

Delivered by Ms Renee Yap, of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade during the third day of the conference, New Zealand believes that if there is any hope of eliminating plastic pollution, there must be a collective effort to “design plastic waste out of the system” by focusing plastic production on high-value, reusable, and recyclable materials.

“Over 99% of plastic is derived from fossil fuels. Fossil fuels that are too often kept cheap by state subsidies, which artificially lower the production cost of virgin plastic,” Ms Yap told the conference.

“We have an opportunity to consider ways that environmentally-harmful subsidies, such as fossil fuel subsidies, can be addressed in the instrument. The reform of fossil fuel subsidies, as a fiscal incentive, can reduce the supply of, and demand for, virgin plastics and plastic products.”

Plastic derived from petroleum is included in the composition of everything that surrounds us, such as packaging, clothing fibers, building materials, medical tools, and others. Microplastics have been detected in fish, blood, breast milk and even the placenta.

The call from New Zealand followed the statement made by the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Ms Inger Andersen, when she opened INC-2, where she emphasised the need to redesign products to use less plastic, redesign product packaging and product shipping, redesign systems and products for reuse and recyclability, and redesign the broader system for justice.

Said Ms Andersen: “My point here is that plastic has been the default option in design for too long. Disposability has been the default option in design for too long, leaving poor communities to eke out a living from the plastic scraps others leave behind has been the default option for too long. It is time for chemists, manufacturers and process engineers to get creative. It is time for governments to get creative. It is time for consumers to get creative.”

Studies estimate that 4.8–12.7 million metric tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean every year, which equates to roughly one rubbish truck carrying around 15 metric tonnes worth of plastic being tipped into the ocean nearly every minute. Studies have also predicted that by 2050, there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish.

This is dire for Pacific communities, who have been thrusted to the forefront of the plastic pollution crisis, eventhough they contribute as little as 1.3% to global plastic pollution statistics. At INC-2, Pacific nations have been amplifying the One Pacific Voice calling for a treaty that is ambitious, robust and reflective of their needs.

The plight of the Pacific nations is not lost on Aotearoa New Zealand.

“In the Pacific, plastic pollution has significant impacts on environments, economies, and livelihoods. Pacific Leaders have called for immediate action to reduce pollution. We need to ensure all countries have the means to adequately implement the instrument, through funding, capacity building, technical assistance, and technology transfer,” Ms Yap said.

“The task before us is daunting. It will require us to change the way we think. This shift in perception will come from sharing our knowledge, and from learning from those with lived experience and expertise in the sustainable management of plastic and waste.”

New Zealand reiterated the importance of indigenous knowledge, with Ms Yap saying: “By engaging with indigenous knowledge holders, in a manner that appropriately protects where and how the knowledge is used, our collective efforts can benefit from approaches that might otherwise have been ignored.

“Our deadline is tight, but we must not shy away from the urgency of this crisis.”

The second Intergovernmental negotiating committee to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment is taking place in Paris France from 29 May to 2 June 2023.  

The Pacific Islands are represented by the Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu through the support of the Government of Australia and the United Nations.

They are supported by the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), working with partners the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, Office of the Pacific Ocean Commissioner, Environmental Investigation Agency, Centre for International Environmental Law, University of Wollongong, WWF and Massey University.

For more information on the POLP project, visit www.sprep.org/polp

For more information on INC-2, visit: https://www.unep.org/events/conference/second-session-intergovernmental-negotiating-committee-develop-international

Photo Credit: IISD/ENB Kiara Worth