Countries have agreed to negotiate a new legally-binding treaty to end plastic pollution in a move hailed by environmental campaigners.
Representatives of 175 countries endorsed a resolution at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi to end plastic pollution and draw up an international legally binding agreement by 2024.
Negotiation efforts will begin this year, and the treaty is expected to tackle plastic through its life cycle, including its production, design and disposal.
Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (Unep) said: “Today marks a planet earth over single-use plastics.”
She said it was the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the Paris accord, which committed all countries to take action to curb dangerous climate change.
“It is an insurance policy for this generation and future ones, so they may live with plastic and not be doomed by it,” she said.
Plastic production has soared from two million tons in 1950 to 348 million tons in 2017, making it a global industry worth more than 520 billion US dollars (£390 billion), and is expected to double by 2040.
But plastics cause air and climate pollution in their production and disposal such as being burned, damage human health and have flooded into the world’s rivers, lakes and oceans, as well as ending up littering land.
An estimated 11 million tonnes of plastics end up in the oceans each year, with fears that may triple by 2040, hitting more than 800 marine and coastal species who ingest or get tangled up in the waste.
The UK Government said it had worked with partners to secure an agreement to negotiate the treaty, which it hopes will promote sustainable production and consumption of plastics, environmentally sound waste management and tackle marine plastic pollution.
Minister for International Environment Lord Zac Goldsmith said: “This agreement by governments at Unea is truly historic, and I’m so proud that the UK co-sponsored the proposals and helped get them over the line.
“In the space of just one human lifetime, we have caused unimaginable damage to the global environment, choking every single part of the global ocean with plastic pollution.
“And although there is much to be done now to turn it into an ambitious and far-reaching treaty, we can now begin to close this ugly chapter.”
Sian Sutherland, co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet, applauded the UN Environment Assembly for “seeing through the fossil fuel lobbying” to agree to secure a legally binding treaty that considers the impact through its entire lifecycle and the effects on health.
“This is a huge opportunity for governments around the world to turn the tide on plastic and show industry that simply pumping out plastic with no responsibility for the devastation it causes is no longer acceptable.
“Plastic is not a pollution problem or even a waste problem.
“It is a design problem, a production problem and this is where industry has a great opportunity to be a part of the solution now,” she urged.
Graham Forbes, global plastic project lead at Greenpeace USA, said: “This is a clear acknowledgment that the entire lifecycle of plastic, from fossil fuel extraction to disposal, creates pollution that is to people and the planet.
“This is a big step that will keep the pressure on big oil and big brands to reduce their plastic footprint and switch their business models to refill and reuse.”
He said that until a strong global treaty was signed, sealed and delivered, Greenpeace and its allies would keep pushing for a world free of plastic pollution, with clean air and stable climate.
Marco Lambertini, director general, WWF International said: “We stand at a crossroad in history when ambitious decisions taken today can prevent plastic pollution from contributing to our planet’s ecosystem collapse.
“By agreeing to develop a legally binding global treaty on plastic pollution, our world leaders are paving the way for a cleaner and safer future for people and the planet.”
He said the treaty would need clear and strong global standards that incentivise nations to abide by common rules and regulations, while also penalising harmful products and practices.
Marcus Gover, chief executive of waste reduction body Wrap said a global treaty would be a powerful vehicle in unifying the world to act.
“However, there is still a lot of work to be done before the international final is in place,” he said.
“In the meantime, efforts to tackle plastic pollution must not wait.
“We will continue to work with our partners across the world through our growing network of Plastics Pacts to take action now to keep plastic in the economy and out of the environment.”