180 countries — except US — agree to plastic waste agreement

After 12 days of negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations, countries have agreed to treat plastic as hazardous waste. Germany is considering a ban that would go even further.

Almost every country in the world, except the United States, agreed to a deal on Friday that would sharply reduce the amount of plastic being washed into the world's oceans.

Nature and Environment | 16.03.2019

The legally binding framework for reducing plastic waste means countries will have to monitor and track thousands of types of plastic waste outside their borders.

The deal was struck after 1,400 representatives met for 12 days of discussions at a United Nations Environment Program meeting in Geneva. The deal essentially updates the 1989 Basel Convention on the control of hazardous waste to include plastic. The US signed the Basel Convention in 1990 but never ratified it.

"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," Rolph Payet of the United Nations Environment Program said. "Countries have decided to do something which will translate into real action on the ground."

Global Ideas | 23.04.2013

IPEN umbrella group science adviser Sara Brosche said: "For far too long developed countries like the US and Canada have been exporting their mixed toxic plastic wastes to developing Asian countries claiming it would be recycled in the receiving country. Instead, much of this contaminated mixed waste cannot be recycled and is instead dumped or burned, or finds its way into the ocean."

The ugly face of plastic pollution

The age of plastic

Plastic is lightweight, durable — and wildly popular. We've produced 8.3 billion metric tons of the material since mass production began in the 1950s. Because it doesn't easily biodegrade, much of what we've made now lives in landfills like this one on Nairobi's outskirts. Rubbish pickers there hunt for recyclable plastics to earn a living. But a lot of plastic also ends up in the ocean ...

The ugly face of plastic pollution

Rivers of plastic

Some 90 percent of plastic enters marine habitats via just 10 rivers: The Yangtze, the Indus, Yellow River, Hai River, the Nile, the Ganges, Pearl River, Amur River, the Niger, and the Mekong. These rivers run through highly populated areas with a lack of adequate waste disposal infrastructure. Here, a fisherman in the Philippines removes a fish and crab trap from plastic-filled waters.

The ugly face of plastic pollution

A plastic welcome to the world

Some animals have found uses for plastic waste. This swan nested in garbage on a Copenhagen lake that is popular with tourists. Her cygnets hatched surrounded by waste. It's not the best start to life. But for some animals the consequences are much worse ...

The ugly face of plastic pollution

Deadly consequences

Although plastic is highly durable and can be used for products with a long lifespan, such as furniture and piping, about 50 percent goes to disposable products, including single-use cutlery and six pack rings that end up in the natural environment. Animals, like this penguin, are in danger of becoming entangled and dying as a result.

The ugly face of plastic pollution

Eating plastic

Other animals mistake the material for food. This albatross chick was found dead on Sand Island in Hawaii with multiple pieces of plastic in its stomach. According to one study of 34 seabird species in northern Europe, Russia, Iceland, Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Scandinavia and Greenland, 74 percent had ingested plastic. Eating the material can lead to organ damage and blockages in the gut.

The ugly face of plastic pollution

Whale killer

Even larger animals aren't immune to the effects of consuming plastic. This whale was found struggling to breathe and swim in a Thai canal. As rescuers attempted to save the animal, it vomited five plastic bags and later died. During the necropsy, vets found 80 shopping bags and other plastic garbage had clogged up the whale's stomach, so the marine creature could no longer digest nutritious food.

The ugly face of plastic pollution

Visible and invisible plastic

We're well aware of the large pieces of plastic bobbing on the ocean's surface, as is pictured here off the Hawaiian coast. But did you know, trillions of tiny particles less than 5 millimeters in diameter are also floating around in there? These particles end up in the food chain. Sea plankton, which are an important source of food for fish and other marine animals, have been filmed eating them.

The ugly face of plastic pollution

An end in sight?

Tentative measures to cut down on disposable plastic have already been taken in some African countries with bans on plastic bags, while the European Union is looking into prohibiting single-use plastic products. But if current trends continue, scientists believe there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic on the planet by 2050.

Calls in Germany for plastic bag ban

Meanwhile, German Development Minister Gerd Müller has called for a ban on plastic bags in Germany, in part to reduce the exports of waste to developing countries.

"The ban on plastic straws is not enough," Müller told the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper. "Germany should not wait for Europe and should immediately ban disposable plastic bags."

The CSU politician noted that some African countries had already banned plastic bags: "We must do what Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda have done."

"Stricter export laws under the Basel Convention are a big step forward and an effective instrument in fighting the increasing amount of waste in the ocean," German Environment Minister Svenja Schulze said on Saturday.

Schulze also said that the new rules could help put an end to the export of plastic waste from the EU to Africa and Asia, and that Europe and Germany are responsible for sorting and recycling plastic waste. 

'Prevent' alliance

On Thursday in Berlin, Müller gave the go-ahead for Germany to join a new, international waste alliance, to which 30 companies, research institutions and organizations already belong.

Among them are Nestlé and Coca-Cola, the Green Dot recycling scheme, several universities and the environmental protection group WWF. Other partners include Indonesia and Ghana.

The alliance is called "Prevent," and its core concern is preventing waste. "Waste is becoming a global survival issue like climate change," said Müller.

Infografik Plastikmüll Export aus der EU EN

Plastic waste in the sea is set to increase tenfold and with current trends, by 2050, there may be more plastic than fish in the oceans. Today, 2 billion people live in areas without garbage collection. "The poorest of the poor suffer the most," said Müller.

Kenya has banned plastic bags yet plastic persists

Reducing waste

Müller says the members of the alliance now want to find ways of reducing as much waste as possible. "Because if we continue in this way, we will drown in rubbish," he said.

German technology could play an important role in the fight against the global waste problem, the minister said, and this in turn could lead to job creation.  

The German government wants to ensure that only sorted and easily recyclable plastic waste can be sold abroad.

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Business | 05.06.2018

Plastic waste is a global problem

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