World

Most of the world's countries agree to sharply reduce plastic in oceans

About 180 countries reached a deal on Friday that aims to sharply reduce the amount of plastic that gets washed into the world's oceans, the United Nations says.

Legally binding agreement will put new, tighter regulations on global trade in plastic waste

A red-footed booby sits among plastic debris on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. Nearly every country in the world has agreed upon a legally binding framework to reduce the pollution from plastic waste except for the United States, UN environmental officials say. (Britta Denise Hardesty/Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation via AP)

About 180 countries reached a deal on Friday that aims to sharply reduce the amount of plastic that gets washed into the world's oceans, the United Nations says.

They agreed to amend the Basel Convention to make global trade in plastic waste more transparent and better regulated, while also ensuring that its management is safer for human health and the environment.

"I'm proud that this week in Geneva, parties to the Basel Convention have reached agreement on a legally binding, globally reaching mechanism for managing plastic waste," Rolph Payet, executive secretary at UN Environment for the Basel, Rotterdam & Stockholm Conventions, said in a statement.

"Pollution from plastic waste, acknowledged as a major environmental problem of global concern, has reached epidemic proportions with an estimated 100 million tonnes of plastic now found in the oceans, 80-90 per cent of which comes from land-based sources," the statement said.

Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation scientist Britta Denise Hardesty shows plastic dissected from a dead flesh-footed shearwater. (Britta Denise Hardesty/CSIRO via AP)

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

Payet said the negotiations, which began 11 days ago in Geneva and brought together 1,400 delegates, had gone much further than anticipated. Canada is a signatory to the Basel Convention. 

Officials attributed the progress partly to growing public awareness worldwide — reinforced by documentary films by British naturalist David Attenborough and others — of the dangers of plastic pollution to marine life.

Marco Lambertini, director general of environmental charity WWF International, said that for too long wealthy countries had abdicated responsibility for enormous quantities of plastic waste and that the new accord was a highly welcome step towards redressing the imbalance and restoring some accountability.

"However, it only goes part of the way. What we — and the planet — need is a comprehensive treaty to tackle the global plastic crisis," he added.

Dead albatross chicks

Payet said the new rules should have a significant impact on ocean pollution and ensure that plastics "do not end up where they should not end up."

Paul Rose, expedition leader for the National Geographic Pristine Seas Expeditions, said he believed changing public opinion worldwide about plastic pollution had played a positive role in the negotiations.

"It was those iconic images of the dead albatross chicks on the Pacific Islands with their stomachs open and all recognizable plastic items inside it, and most recently, it's been when we discovered the nanoparticles do cross the blood-brain barrier, and we were able to prove that plastic is in us," Rose said.

An Albatross carcass found on Midway Island in the central Pacific Ocean in the 1990s suggests the animal swallowed large amounts of plastic debris before its death. (Britta Denise Hardesty/CSIRO via AP)

An online petition entitled "Stop dumping plastic in paradise!" has attracted almost a million signatures in the past week.

The new rules will take a year to come into force. But Payet said the signatory countries had said they did not want any delay, adding that the plan was to "hit the ground running."

With files from The Associated Press and CBC News

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.