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Anglicans take on global ‘plastic pandemic’ at the UN

Posted on: March 25, 2022 1:37 PM
Dr Rachel Mash and Nicholas Pande beside the #TurnOffThePlasticTap sculpture

Anglican representatives to the United Nations are celebrating the passing of a major international agreement on plastic pollution. 

Anglican representatives to the United Nations are celebrating the passing of a major international agreement on plastic pollution, a breakthrough influenced in part by the voices and experiences they were able to share from faith communities. 

At the start of March, the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA), the world’s overarching decision-making body on environmental issues, reached an historic resolution to tackle what they called the “epidemic” of single-use plastics. The resolution, proposed by Rwanda and Peru and reached at UNEA5 in Nairobi, commits signatories to reaching a legally-binding agreement on plastics by 2024. 

Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UN Environment Programme, said it was “the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the Paris accord”. 

As an accredited observer at the UNEA, the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) was able to play an important role to play in the negotiations, lobbying ministers and representatives from some of the 173 member nations on behalf of Anglicans. 

The ACC drafted and co-signed a letter from global faith communities to the Assembly, warning that the world is “facing a triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution” and calling on member states to recognise that plastic pollution is a “pervasive and escalating phenomenon” which requires urgent, co-ordinated global action. 

Sharing the ‘lived experience’ of Anglicans 

Jack Palmer-White, the ACC’s Permanent Representative to the UN, said the delegation’s commitment to environmental issues like plastic pollution was grounded in the Marks of Mission, which call on Anglicans to “safeguard the integrity of creation”.  

“What brings our work to life is the lived experience of local Anglicans, every day in every context around the world,” he said. As a global body representing some 80 million people with a huge variety of backgrounds and cultures, the ACC is uniquely placed to confront UN delegates with the realities of plastic pollution, he said, and what churches are already doing to tackle the issue. 

“I think that's what makes faith voices at the UN have impact. Beyond just talking about the moral and ethical reasons why this is important, we're actually doing it.” 

The UN says global plastic production increased from two million tonnes in 1950 to a staggering 348 million tonnes in 2017. Already, some 11 million tonnes of plastic flows into the oceans each year, a figure that may triple by 2040. 

“Currently 6% of global emissions come from plastic,” said Rev Dr Rachel Mash, the Environmental Co-ordinator of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, and a member of the ACC delegation to the UNEA. 

“Plastics impact on people's health, the health of ecosystems and particularly marine life. Plastics do not break down, they break up into micro plastics. It is an issue of intergenerational injustice that we are leaving our waste for future generations.” 

Nicholas Pande, Project Officer at the Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa and one of the ACC delegates at the UNEA, said the resolution was “a huge milestone in dealing with pollution crisis we face globally”. 

“UNEA 5 has been to plastic pollution what Paris was to climate change. We are turning off the taps that have been churning out plastics for decades.” 

‘Faith offers motivation and values’ 

The Revd Dr Rachel Mash said the impact of plastic use could be seen everywhere. “There are the health impacts when sewerage systems become blocked by plastic waste and the treatment plants stop working and overflow. There are the economic costs, when plastic tangles in boats’ propellors and the engine is damaged, or the hospitality trade is impacted when tourists stop coming to a particular site. 

“And there are the devastating effects on marine life from the greatest whale who dies of starvation because her stomach is full of plastic, to the tiniest plankton who becomes polluted.” 

She said relying on recycling alone was “like mopping a floor without turning off the tap”. Instead “it is time to turn off the tap”. 

She said she was “delighted” with the UNEA resolution, but that there was still a lot of work to be done on reaching an agreement by 2024, including agreeing on caps for the production of new plastic, which items will be banned or controlled, and how any future resolution will be enforced. 

She particularly celebrated the work of Christian charity Tearfund in ensuring that the voices of waste pickers - who make a low-income living collecting discarded plastic and could be adversely affected by a plastic ban - were included in the negotiations. 

“What is important is for us all to get involved in the public participation processes in our own countries,” she said. 

“Faith voices are important because we offer values and reach. We have the science to solve all the environmental challenges we face - but we are hindered by greed and apathy. Faith offers motivation and values - to care for creation and to care for the health of those impacted by plastic.”