Europe Relegates Single-Use Plastics to History

This sea turtle doesn't know that plastic bags could choke it to death. (Photo by Troy Mayne) Posted for media use.

This sea turtle doesn’t know that plastic bags could choke it to death. (Photo by Troy Mayne) Posted for media use.

By Sunny Lewis

BRUSSELS, Belgium, December 20, 2018 ( News) – Targeting the 10 plastic products most often found littering European beaches as well as abandoned fishing gear, the European Parliament and Council have reached a provisional political agreement with the Commission on new measures to tackle marine litter at its source.

The agreement, reached Wednesday, is based on the Single-Use Plastics proposal presented in May by the Commission as part of the world’s first comprehensive Plastics Strategy, adopted in January.

Every year, Europeans generate 25 million tonnes of plastic waste, but less than 30 percent is collected for recycling.

Across the world, plastics make up 85 percent of beach litter. Plastic residue is found in marine species such as sea turtles, seals, whales and birds, and also in fish and shellfish, and therefore in the human food chain. And microplastics in air, water and food are having an unknown impact on human health.

The new EU Directive on Single-Use Plastics will be the most ambitious legal instrument at the global level addressing marine litter. It envisions different measures to apply to different product categories.

Where alternatives are easily available and affordable, single-use plastic products will be banned from the market from 2021. This will apply to such products as plastic cotton buds, cutlery, plates, straws, drink stirrers, sticks for balloons, products made of oxo-degradable plastic and food and beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene.

In the case of drinking straws, for instance, plastic straws could be replaced by straws made of all kinds of materials: paper, corn, hay, bamboo, metal, silicon or glass.

For other products, the focus is on limiting their use through a national reduction in consumption; on design and labeling requirements; and waste management and clean-up obligations for producers.

The new rules contribute to the goal of turning Europe into a more sustainable, circular economy, reflected in the Circular Economy Action Plan adopted in December 2015. Europe’s businesses and consumers will take the lead in producing and using sustainable alternatives that avoid marine litter and oceans pollution.

The provisional agreement must now be formally approved by the European Parliament and the Council. Following its approval, the new Single-Use Plastics Directive will be published in the EU’s Official Journal and the Member States will have to transpose it after two years.

Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Karmenu Vella said, “When we have a situation where one year you can bring your fish home in a plastic bag, and the next year you are bringing that bag home in a fish, we have to work hard and work fast.”

“We have taken a big stride towards reducing the amount of single-use plastic items in our economy, our ocean and ultimately our bodies,” said Vella.

From the European Parliament, Lead MEP Frédérique Ries (ALDE, BE) said Wednesday, “Citizens expected only one thing from the European Union, that it adopts an ambitious directive against disposable plastics responsible for asphyxiation of the seas and oceans. This is done with our agreement closed at 6:30 this morning. It will reduce the environmental damage bill by €22 billion – the estimated cost of plastic pollution in Europe until 2030.”

The proposed Directive follows a similar approach to the successful 2015 Plastic Bags Directive, which brought about a rapid shift in consumer behavior. These days, few rely on single use plastic bags but rely instead on reusable cloth shopping bags.

The new measures are expected to bring about both environmental and economic benefits. They are projected to avoid the emission of 3.4 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent; avoid environmental damages which would cost the equivalent of €22 billion by 2030; and save consumers a projected €6.5 billion.

“Europeans are conscious that plastic waste is an enormous problem and the EU as a whole has shown true courage in addressing it, making us the global leader in tackling plastic marine litter,” said First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, responsible for sustainable development. “Equally important is, that with the solutions agreed upon today, we are also driving a new circular business model and showing the way forward to putting our economy on a more sustainable path.”

The Single-Use Plastics Directive is supported by other measures taken against marine pollution, such as the Directive on Port Reception Facilities, on which the European Parliament and the Council reached a provisional agreement just last week.

This Directive will tackle waste from ships, with a focus on sea-based marine litter. It sets regulations to ensure that waste generated on ships or collected at sea is always returned to land, recycled and processed in ports.

Earlier this month the European Commission launched also the Circular Plastics Alliance, an alliance of industry stakeholders covering the full plastics value chain as part of their efforts to reduce plastics littering, increase the share of recycled plastics and stimulate market innovation.

The Circular Plastics Alliance aims to improve the economics and quality of plastics recycling in Europe, and will in particular strengthen the match between supply and demand for recycled plastics, which is identified as the main obstacle to a well-functioning EU market for recycled plastics.

With this new initiative, the Commission wants to contribute to the objective of achieving at least 10 million tons of recycled plastics offered as new products on the EU market by 2025, as set in the European Strategy for Plastics.

On January 16, the first-ever Europe-wide strategy on plastics was adopted as a part of the transition towards a more circular economy.

Under the new plans, all plastic packaging on the EU market will be recyclable by 2030, the consumption of single-use plastics will be reduced and the intentional use of microplastics will be restricted.

Continuing in the spirit of the 2015 Circular Economy Package, the Plastics Strategy and the Single-Use Plastics Directive have been prepared by a core project team of First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, Vice-President Jyrki Katainen and Commissioners Vella and Elżbieta Bieńkowska. Many other commissioners were also involved in its preparation and helped identify the most effective tools covering a wide range of policy areas.

Vice-President Katainen, responsible for jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness, said, “Tackling the plastics problem is a must. At the same time it brings new opportunities for innovation, competitiveness and job creation. We will discuss those thoroughly with industry within the Circular Plastics Alliance.

“With the agreement reached today,” said Katainen, “we are showing that Europe is doing a smart economic and environmental choice and is advancing towards a new truly circular plastics economy.”

Featured Image: Plastic rope entangled with seaweed on a North Sea beach in Denmark, January 19, 2014 (Photo by anriro96) Creative Commons license via Flickr.

Tidal Wave of Support Lifts World Oceans Day

Schooling fairy basslets on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia, July 8, 2007 (Photo by GreensMPs) Creative Commons license via Flickr

Schooling fairy basslets on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia, July 8, 2007 (Photo by GreensMPs) Creative Commons license via Flickr

By Sunny Lewis

NAIROBI, Kenya, June 12, 2018 ( News) – To celebrate World Oceans Day, June 8, nations throughout the world showed an unprecedented commitment to healthy, thriving oceans and seas, free from plastic pollution, say officials at UN Environment, based here in Nairobi.

World Oceans Day has come a long way from 1992 when it was first proposed by Canada. Now the ocean has its own Sustainable Development Goal, SDG 14, which commits countries to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.”

Eight new countries have joined UN Environment’s Clean Seas Campaign in the past week, making Clean Seas the largest global compact for combating marine litter, with commitments from 51 nations covering 62 percent of the world’s coastlines.

India made a bold commitment to address plastic pollution upstream by banning all single-use plastics by 2022, and to address the problem downstream, with a full coastal audit, developed in partnership with the Clean Seas campaign.

Across Nigeria, currently one of the Top 10 biggest plastic polluters, 26 major plastic waste recycling plants will be opened as part of the country’s commitment to the campaign. Head of UN Environment Erik Solheim met with Nigerian government officials June 8 to discuss the scope of their collaboration with Clean Seas.

Other countries who pledged this week to step up their protection of the ocean and their coastlines include: Argentina, Cote d’Ivoire, United Arab Emirates, Honduras, Guyana and Vanuatu.

“There is now more momentum than ever before to beat plastic pollution and protect the oceans that we all share from the tide of disposable plastic,” said Solheim. “Seeing so many countries rise to the occasion by joining the Clean Seas campaign means we are all moving towards healthier oceans that are free from pollution and full of life.”

This week, Heads of State met with the leaders of international organizations at the G7 summit in the coastal province of Quebec, Canada, to discuss strategies to address specific challenges for the oceans, including plastic pollution, overfishing, rising sea levels and the resiliency of coastal communities.

“The facts are clear. Our oceans are a mess,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres declared at a G7 outreach event. The G7 group of advanced economies, consists of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. The European Union also attends G7 meetings.

“Plastic waste is now found in the most remote areas of the planet. It kills marine life and is doing major harm to communities that depend on fishing and tourism,” Guterres warned.

Five of the G7 Nations Endorse Ocean Plastics Charter

Pointing out that one mass of plastic in the Pacific is now bigger than France, Guterres welcomed the G7 Ocean Plastics Charter, agreed on Saturday by five of the G7 nations, without the United States and Japan. The move is being seen by some observers as a watershed moment for cleaning up ocean trash.

“Recognizing that healthy oceans and seas directly support the livelihoods, food security and economic prosperity of billions of people,” the G7 leaders met in Charlevoix with the heads of state or government of the Argentina; Bangladesh; Haiti; Jamaica; Kenya; Marshall Islands; Norway; Rwanda, which chairs the African Union; Senegal; Seychelles; South Africa; Vietnam; and the heads of the United Nations, the IMF, the World Bank and the OECD, “to discuss concrete actions to protect the health of marine environments and ensure a sustainable use of marine resources as part of a renewed agenda to increase global biodiversity protection.”

The G7 final communique, agreed by all G7 members except the United States, says, “We endorse the Charlevoix Blueprint for Healthy Oceans, Seas and Resilient Coastal Communities , and will improve oceans knowledge, promote sustainable oceans and fisheries, support resilient coasts and coastal communities and address ocean plastic waste and marine litter.”

In the Banc D'arguin, Mauritania, the Imraguen group is famous because of its way of fishing, without boats, but with dolphins. When dolphins make a circle around fishes, fishermen throw their nets and bring the fish up on shore. June 18, 2006 (Photo by Christine Vaufrey) Creative Commons license via Flickr

In the Banc D’arguin, Mauritania, the Imraguen group is famous because of its way of fishing, without boats, but with dolphins. When dolphins make a circle around fishes, fishermen throw their nets and bring the fish up on shore. June 18, 2006 (Photo by Christine Vaufrey) Creative Commons license via Flickr

“Recognizing that plastics play an important role in our economy and daily lives but that the current approach to producing, using, managing and disposing of plastics and poses a significant threat to the marine environment, to livelihoods and potentially to human health, we the Leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and the European Union endorse the G7 Ocean Plastics Charter.”

The charter outlines a “resource-efficient lifecycle management approach to plastics in the economy,” which includes working toward making all plastics recyclable by 2030, reducing single-use plastics and promoting the use of recycled plastic.

It also pledges to build out recycling infrastructure, and innovate around more sustainable technologies.

“But we all need to do so much more,” Guterres emphasized, “not just on plastic waste but on all ocean issues.”

Greenpeace International agrees.

Greenpeace International Executive Director Jennifer Morgan said in a statement, “While the leadership to outline a common blueprint is good news, voluntary charters focused on recycling and repurposing will not solve the problem at the source.”

“Governments must move beyond voluntary agreements to legislate binding reduction targets and bans on single-use plastics, invest in new and reuse delivery models for products, and hold corporations accountable for the problem they have created,” Morgan urged.

More governments than ever are implementing some kind of intervention against single-use plastics, from bans, restrictions and levies on disposable plastic items to the implementation of better recycling facilities and the development of viable alternatives to the most common contributors to marine litter.

UN Environment launched #CleanSeas in February 2017, with the aim of engaging governments, the general public, civil society and the private sector in the fight against marine plastic litter. By connecting individuals, civil society groups, industry and governments, UN Environment aims to transform habits, practices, standards and policies around the globe to reduce marine litter and the harm it causes.

British Commonwealth Nations Adopt Blue Charter

This year, international concern for the plight of the global ocean is at an all-time high. In April, the 53 countries of the British Commonwealth adopted the Commonwealth Blue Charter, creating a guide to cooperative action on ocean issues.

Commonwealth countries recognize that time is of the essence and they are cooperating to achieve their goals.

In the words of the Commonwealth Blue Charter, the time has come to “move from words to actions.”

Already, eight Action Groups led by Commonwealth countries are being established. More are anticipated.

“Innovation is key to this whole issue. We need practical new ideas for on-the-ground action – that’s what the Action Groups aim to deliver,” comments Nick Hardman-Mountford, head of the Oceans and Natural Resources Division at the Commonwealth.

And groups are acting now. Australia, Belize, and Mauritius have stepped forward to co-lead a Blue Charter Action Group on coral reef regeneration. Just a few years ago, scientists were lonely voices sounding the alarm about coral. Now it is common knowledge that the world’s reefs are in peril, and protecting the corals must extend to actively restoring them.

Likewise, Sri Lanka is leading a Mangrove Restoration Action Group. Cyprus is leading on sustainable aquaculture, and New Zealand is tackling ocean acidification.

“To see Commonwealth leaders stepping forward for the ocean was a real ‘pinch-me moment,'” says Jeff Ardron, who coordinates work under the Commonwealth Blue Charter.

Think Blue Ocean Education Portal Emerges

The launch of Think Blue took place on June 8, World Oceans Day, in Salvador, Bahia with the World Bank, Virtual Educa, Discovery Education, The Smithsonian, Intel Corporation, Brazilian and international partners with endorsements by the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) and the Indian Ocean Rim Association.

The OECS will soon be populating the Think Blue portal with original education content on the Blue Economy, as well as outfitting it with the artificial intelligence algorithm for enhanced use: video here.

The new ocean education portal, Think Blue: Innovation in Ocean Education, aims to accelerate access to ocean education, linking technology, adaptive learning, and ocean-based industries to foster a skills and knowledge-based future.

The Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) suggests that these skills will be linked to ocean-based industries – coastal tourism, shipping and transport, fisheries and aquaculture – as they are projected to provide the greatest number of new jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities.

Already, we are experiencing high demand in these ‘blue’ sectors, particularly in coastal and island countries across the globe.

Think Blue points out that progress towards meeting the education targets of the Sustainable Development Goals and for meeting the rising demand for skilled employment in ocean-based industries is hindered by a shortage of at least 68.8 million teachers and educators as projected by UNESCO.

Think Blue is offered as an enhanced portal solution for innovation in ocean education, prompting and supporting life-long learning.

Think Blue aims to act as a “one-stop-shop tool” for searching and accessing aggregated quality ocean education content on marine conservation, plastic pollution management and advocacy, technical industries and marine policy, says Think Blue Coordinator Jorge Barbosa.

“The portal aims to apply disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning to personalize individual searches and yield better results for all audiences,” Barbosa says. “The portal represents a shift in mindset towards the use of edu-tech products and disruptive technologies to better prepare current and future generations to steer the planet toward a sustainable future.”

Featured Images: Humpback whale breaches right next to a pair of kayackers off Moss Landing, California, July 20, 2014 (Photo by Wade Tregaskis) Creative Commons license via Flickr

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Europe Bans Plastics for Ocean Health

Plastic fishing gear and strapping litters a beach in northern Norway, which is not an EU member state. April 27, 2014 (Photo by Bo Eide) Creative Commons license via Flickr

Plastic fishing gear and strapping litters a beach in northern Norway, which is not an EU member state. April 27, 2014 (Photo by Bo Eide) Creative Commons license via Flickr

By Sunny Lewis

BRUSSELS, Belgium, May 30, 2018 ( News) – Beachgoers love to have fun in the sun, eating, drinking and smoking all the while, but the plastic food and drinks containers, straws, cigarette butts and plastic carrier bags they use just once are littering oceans and seas and piling up on coastlines.

Plastics can be carried by wind and rain into drains or rivers that flow into the sea. Plastics can blow away from landfills and end up in rivers or oceans.

A member of the Gullane Beaver Scout Group finds cotton buds with plastic stems on Scotland's Gullane Beach, January 11, 2018 (Photo by Scottish Government) Creative Commons license via Flickr

A member of the Gullane Beaver Scout Group finds cotton buds with plastic stems on Scotland’s Gullane Beach, January 11, 2018 (Photo by Scottish Government) Creative Commons license via Flickr

Now the European Commission is proposing new EU-wide rules to target the 10 single-use plastic products most often found on Europe’s beaches and seas, as well as lost and abandoned fishing gear.

Announcing the new rules on Monday, EU Vice-President Jyrki Katainen, responsible for jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness, said, “Plastic can be fantastic, but we need to use it more responsibly. Single use plastics are not a smart economic or environmental choice, and today’s proposals will help business and consumers to move towards sustainable alternatives.”

“This is an opportunity for Europe to lead the way, creating products that the world will demand for decades to come, and extracting more economic value from our precious and limited resources.”

“Our collection target for plastic bottles will also help to generate the necessary volumes for a thriving plastic recycling industry,” said Katainen, who hails from Finland on the Baltic Sea, where waste generated by recreational and tourism activities is piling up.

With the new rules, Europe is tackling the 10 plastic waste items most found on Europe’s beaches and promoting sustainable alternatives.

If the proposed rules become law, there will be a plastic ban on products where alternatives are readily available and affordable. The ban will apply to plastic cotton buds, cutlery, plates, straws, drink stirrers and sticks, and for balloons, which will all have to be made exclusively from more sustainable materials instead.

These 10 types of items together account for 70 percent of the marine litter in Europe.

  1. Cotton buds: Ban on single use cotton buds made with plastic, to be replaced on the market with sustainable alternatives.
  2.  Cutlery, plates, straws and stirrers: Ban on single use cutlery, plates, straws and stirrers made with plastics, to be replaced with more sustainable alternatives.
  3. Sticks for balloons and balloons: Plastic sticks for balloons to be banned and replaced with sustainable alternatives. On balloons, producers to contribute to awareness-raising, clean-up, collection, waste treatment and introduce new labelling on the environmental impact of the product and recycling options for consumers.
  4. Food containers: Significant national consumption reduction of plastic food containers. Producers to contribute to awareness-raising, clean-up, collection and waste treatment.
  5. Cups for beverages: Significant national consumption reduction of plastic cups for beverages. Producers to contribute to awareness-raising, clean-up, collection and waste treatment.
  6. Beverage bottles: Producers to contribute to awareness-raising, clean-up, collection and waste treatment of beverage containers; product design requirements to attach caps and lids to beverage containers; 90 percent separate collection target for plastic bottles. Member States will be obliged to collect 90 percent of single-use plastic drinks bottles by 2025, for example, through deposit refund schemes.
  7. Cigarette butts: Producers to contribute to awareness-raising, cleanup, collection and waste treatment of cigarette butts and other plastic tobacco product filters.
  8. Bags: Producers to contribute to awareness-raising, clean-up, collection and waste treatment of lightweight plastic carrier bags, in addition to existing measures in the existing Plastic Bags Directive.   After addressing plastic bags in 2015, 72 percent of Europeans said they have cut down on their use of plastic bags, according to Eurobarometer.
  9. Crisp packets/sweets wrappers: Producers to contribute to awareness-raising, clean-up, collection and waste treatment of plastic packets and wrappers.
  10. Wet wipes and sanitary items: New labelling requirements for sanitary towels and wet wipes to inform consumers on environmental impact of the product and how to dispose of it properly. Producers to contribute to awareness-raising, clean-up, collection and waste treatment of wet wipes.
  11. Fishing gear: For fishing gear, which accounts for 27 percent of all beach litter, the Commission aims to complete the existing policy framework with producer responsibility schemes for fishing gear containing plastic.

Producers of fishing gear containing plastics will be required to cover the costs of waste collection from port reception facilities and its transport and treatment. They will also cover the costs of awareness-raising measures.

The Commission reasons that the new rules will give companies a competitive edge. Having one set of rules for the whole EU market will create a springboard for European companies to develop economies of scale and be more competitive in the booming global marketplace for sustainable products, the Commission said in a statement.

By setting up re-use systems, such as deposit refund plans, companies can ensure a stable supply of high quality material.

In other cases, the incentive to look for more sustainable solutions can give companies the technological lead over global competitors.

The packaging producers, on whose cooperation the success of these new rules depends, appear to be on board.

Kristian Hall, president of the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment , said on May 23, “Our industry is committed to supporting increased recycling of its packages and securing long-term sustainable recycling solutions. Hence, the members of ACE, BillerudKorsnäs, Elopak, SIG Combibloc, Stora Enso and Tetra Pak, have decided to launch a dedicated platform to drive and coordinate the industry’s engagement in beverage carton recycling, including the non-paper components of our packages across Europe.”

The new platform will be based in Frankfurt, Germany. It will collaborate with national carton industry associations, member company initiatives and other stakeholders.

Hall said, “Recognizing that sustainable recycling programs require collaboration within and beyond our own industry, the new platform will actively seek alliances and partnerships with industry actors sharing similar needs to optimize recycling solutions.”

All the materials used in beverage cartons are recyclable. Recycling beverage cartons reduces carbon emissions and enables a better use of raw material resources.

Recycling of beverage cartons in Europe (EU-28) has grown steadily over the last years, with around 430,000 tonnes recycled in 2016. This represents a rate of 47 percent of all cartons sold in Europe being recycled, with some countries like Belgium or Germany having rates over 70 percent.

PlasticsEurope, an association of plastics manufacturers, says it has been “at the forefront of the fight against marine litter and is fully committed to helping put an end to the leakage of plastics into the environment.”

But PlasticsEurope is against plastic product bans. The association says, “…plastic product bans are not the solution and will not achieve the structural change needed to build the foundation for a sustainable and resource efficient economy; as alternative products may not be more sustainable.”

To reduce littering, PlasticsEurope wants governments to integrate the issue of marine litter in their national waste management strategies. It says waste management infrastructure needs to be improved so that all plastic waste is collected and then used as a resource. Landfilling has to be avoided.

PlasticsEurope supports innovation and mindful product design and also supports awareness-raising campaigns, “which lead to responsible consumption and an understanding that waste is a resource.”

Together, the new rules are expected to put Europe ahead of the curve on a big issue with global implications.

The EU’s First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, responsible for sustainable development, said, “This Commission promised to be big on the big issues and leave the rest to Member States. Plastic waste is undeniably a big issue and Europeans need to act together to tackle this problem, because plastic waste ends up in our air, our soil, our oceans, and in our food.”

“Today’s proposals will reduce single use plastics on our supermarket shelves through a range of measures,” said Timmermans. “We will ban some of these items, and substitute them with cleaner alternatives so people can still use their favorite products.”

Featured Image: Plastic litters a beach on the Atlantic Ocean at Igueldo, Basque Country, Spain,  February 17, 2009 (Photo by Igeldo Donostia) Creative Commons license via Flickr


World Leaders Pledge Pollution-free Planet

Assembly participants have fun with the #BeatPollution sculpture in front of the conference venue. December 5, 2017 (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin) Posted for media use

Assembly participants have fun with the #BeatPollution sculpture in front of the conference venue. December 5, 2017 (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin) Posted for media use

By Sunny Lewis

NAIROBI, Kenya, December 7, 2017 ( News) – “With the promises made here, we are sending a powerful message that we will listen to the science, change the way we consume and produce, and tackle pollution in all its forms across the globe,” said Dr. Edgar Gutiérrez-Espeleta, Costa Rica’s minister of environment and energy and the president of the 2017 UN Environment Assembly.

“The science we have seen at this assembly shows we have been so bad at looking after our planet that we have very little room to make more mistakes,” said Gutiérrez.

More than 4,000 heads of state and government, ministers, business leaders, UN officials, civil society representatives, activists and celebrities gathered at the summit in Nairobi, which ran for three days, through December 6.

They committed to a pollution-free planet, with resolutions and pledges promising to improve the lives of billions by cleaning up air, land and water.

Government ministers called for “rapid, large-scale and co-ordinated action against pollution” on Wednesday, capping the UN Environment Assembly with a strong commitment to protect human health and our common environment from an existential threat.

For the first time at a UN Environment Assembly, environment ministers issued a declaration. This declaration said nations would honor efforts to prevent, mitigate and manage the pollution of air, land and soil, freshwater, and oceans, which harms our health, societies, ecosystems, economies, and security.

“We the world’s ministers of the environment, believe that every one of us should be able to live in a clean environment. Any threat to our environment is a threat to our health, our society, our ecosystems, our economy, our security, our well-being and our very survival,” they said in a declaration after the three-day meeting in Nairobi, Kenya.

The declaration committed to increasing research and development, targeting pollution through tailored actions, moving societies towards sustainable lifestyles based on a circular economy, promoting fiscal incentives to move markets and promote positive change, as well as strengthening and enforcing laws on pollution.

Environmental leaders, from left: Erik Solheim, executive director, United Nations Environment Programme, Uhuru Kenyatta, President of Kenya, and UNEA President Edgar Gutiérrez-Espeleta, Minister of Environment and Energy, Costa Rica, take a selfie for the #BeatPollution campaign. (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin) Posted for media use

Environmental leaders, from left: Erik Solheim, executive director, United Nations Environment Programme, Uhuru Kenyatta, President of Kenya, and UNEA President Edgar Gutiérrez-Espeleta, Minister of Environment and Energy, Costa Rica, take a selfie for the #BeatPollution campaign. (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin) Posted for media use

A large part of the impact from the assembly comes from global support. UN Environment’s #BeatPollution campaign hit almost 2.5 million pledges during the event, with 88,000 personal commitments to act.

If every promise made in and around the summit comes is fulfilled, 1.49 billion more people will breathe clean air, 480,000 kilometers, or around 30 percent, of the world’s coastlines will be clean, and US$18.6 billion for research and development and innovative programs to combat pollution will come online.

The assembly also passed 13 non-binding resolutions and three decisions. Among them were moves to address marine litter and microplastics, prevent and reduce air pollution, cut out lead poisoning from paint and batteries, protect water-based ecosystems from pollution, deal with soil pollution, and manage pollution in areas hit by conflict and terrorism.

“Today we have put the fight against pollution high on the global political agenda,” said Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment. “We have a long struggle ahead of us, but the summit showed there is a real appetite for significant positive change.”

“It isn’t just about the UN and governments, though,” said Solheim. “The massive support we have seen from civil society, businesses and individuals – with millions of pledges to end pollution – show that this is a global challenge with a global desire to win this battle together.”

Chile, Oman, South Africa and Sri Lanka all joined the #CleanSeas campaign during the Nairobi summit. Sri Lanka, an island nation south of India, promised to implement a ban on single-use plastic products from January 1, 2018, step up the separation and recycling of waste, and set the goal of freeing its ocean and coasts of pollution by 2030.

There are now 39 countries in the #CleanSeas campaign.

Colombia, Singapore, Bulgaria, Hungary and Mongolia joined 100 cities that were already in the #BreatheLife campaign, which aims to tackle air pollution. Every signatory has committed to reduce air pollution to safe levels by 2030, with Singapore promising to tighten fuel and emissions standards for vehicles, and emissions standards for industry.

The global momentum comes not a moment too soon, as the UN Environment report, “The Executive Director’s Report: Towards a Pollution-Free Planet,” sets forth.

Overall, environmental degradation causes nearly one in four of all deaths worldwide, or 12.6 million people a year, and the widespread destruction of key ecosystems. Air pollution is the single biggest environmental killer, claiming 6.5 million lives each year.

Exposure to lead in paint causes brain damage to 600,000 children annually.

The seas already contain 500 dead zones with too little oxygen to support marine life. Over 80 percent of the world’s wastewater is released into the environment without treatment, poisoning the fields where food is grown and the lakes and rivers that provide drinking water to 300 million people.

There is also a huge economic cost of pollution. A recent report by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health says that welfare losses due to pollution are estimated at over US$4.6 trillion each year, equivalent to 6.2 percent of global economic output.

Curbing pollution is vital to protecting the natural systems that not only underpin the livelihoods of billions of people, but also sustain all life on Earth, wrote Executive Director Solheim in his report. “Biodiversity is under threat as never before.”

“Animals and plants, including species vital to many poorer communities, are suffering from the effects of pollution, including from the vast amounts of untreated waste emanating from households and industry. The excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture is having severe unintended effects, decimating the populations of beneficial insects such as bees and destroying the ecosystems of rivers and lakes and creating hundreds of coastal ‘dead zones’ devoid of fish,” wrote Solheim.

Pollution is not a new phenomenon nor is action to counter it, wrote Solheim. But now, he points out, “there is a need – and an opportunity – to dramatically step up our ambition.”

Science is delivering great advances in our understanding of pollution and its impacts on people, economies and the environment. Citizens are more aware than ever before of how pollution developing the technology to tackle these problems at all scales, from local to global. Financiers are increasingly ready to support them, while international bodies and forums, including the United Nations, stand ready to help channel this momentum and turn it into firm action.”

And firm action is built on a firm foundation of funding.

Solheim advocates “system-wide action to transform the economy,” building circularity and resource efficiency into production processes and supply chains.

The market for environmental goods and servicesm including pollution control, is expected to grow to more than US$2.2 trillion by 2020, Solheim said.

“Opening markets for these goods and services will allow international trade and investment, stimulate innovation, reduce costs and make pollution technologies more accessible to developing countries. Ecosystems can be harnessed to provide

many pollution control and management services.

“As consumption rises and populations grow, pollution increases,” wrote Solheim. “We need to find a way to live well and live lightly. All parts of society have a role to play.”

As the assembly closed on Wednesday, Solheim said the event was an “astonishing success.”

The challenge now is “how do we translate that into real changes in people’s lives. That is what matters,” Solheim said at the closing news conference. He identified plastic pollution, air quality and chemicals as priority areas for immediate action.

Download the Ministerial Declaration here  and the final resolutions here.

The next UN Environment Assembly is expected in two years’ time.

Featured Image: Participant in the UN Environment Assembly carries her message with her, December 5, 2017 (Photo courtesy UN Environment) posted for media use