Civil society to tackle plastic pollution

Dr Abid Qaiyum Suleri, Executive Director of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute,

Ambassador (Retd.) Shafqat Kakakhel,

Dr Dechen Tsering, Director of UNEP’s Asia Pacific office, 

Colleagues and friends,

My deep thanks to the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, or SDPI, for the invitation to talk to you about what we need to do, as a global community, to end plastic pollution.

Allow me to begin by expressing my deepest condolences to families affected by the terrible terror attacks in Peshawar. 

Plastic pollution is drowning and poisoning the planet. Nine billion tonnes of plastic were produced between 1950 and 2017. Of this, seven billion tonnes became waste. Today, 11 million tonnes of plastic flow into our oceans. Plastic pollution is in our waterways, our food, our soil, animals and in us.

This plastic pollution aggravates the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste. It hinders the right to a healthy environment. It slows sustainable development. And it hits hardest at the heart of vulnerable communities.

Pakistan is, like every nation on the planet, no stranger to plastic pollution. Pakistan produced 3.9 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2020, over 65 per cent of which was mismanaged. 18 per cent of municipal solid waste produced in Pakistan is plastics. Only 3 per cent of plastic used by the manufacturing industry in Pakistan is recycled material.

This all has obvious consequences. For example, open burning of plastic waste causes air pollution and respiratory impacts, as the residents of Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad know all too well. And floods can be aggravated by plastic pollution, as it clogs sewers. 

UNEP Executive Director, Inger Andersen, at the Lecture for Civil Society at Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad, Pakistan.
Photo Credit: UNEP

Friends, we know we have a problem. But the fifth United Nations Environment Assembly, or UNEA 5.2, showed that the international community is getting serious about this problem.

At UNEA 5.2 early last year, nations overcame geopolitical tensions to take the historic step of agreeing on the need for an international legally binding agreement on plastic pollution. The Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee tasked with creating this agreement must finish its work by 2024. If we can agree and start implementing this deal, it will help drive a movement to a circular plastic economy that could reduce the volume of plastics entering the ocean by over 80 per cent and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent. We are already on our way, with the committee meeting for the first time in Uruguay in November 2022.

We have seen strong support from Pakistan on this process and on ending plastic pollution in general.

Pakistan’s High Commissioner and Permanent Representative to UNEP, Mrs. SaqlainSyedah, is a current chair of the Asia Pacific Regional Group for UNEP. Pakistan’s engagement, including through the G7, helped in setting up the Bureau for the Inter-Governmental Negotiating Committee. And Pakistan supported the General Assembly resolution on the right to a clean and healthy environment.

Pakistan has shown further leadership in environmental governance. The Ministry of Climate Change imposed a complete ban on the manufacture, import, sale, purchase, storage and usage of polythene bags in Islamabad Capital Territory over three years ago.

In February 2022, Pakistan established the National Plastic Action Partnership to provide platform of action for plastic waste management. A major outcome of this will be the creation and implementation of a circular economy framework to reduce plastic waste and pollution. 

Pakistan has encouraged industries and companies to collect their plastic waste and recycle it in environmentally safe manner on basis of polluter pay principles and extended producer responsibility.

This work is all very welcome. However, now we all want the plastic pollution agreement to help every nation take action to the next level.

The agreement under negotiation must radically transform the plastic economy to a circular one – in so doing setting a blueprint for other sectors. The agreement must be informed by science. Involve all stakeholders and recognize the critical role that industry plays in the solution. Spur solutions for a new economy. Learn from other instruments, but also be ready and willing to embrace innovation in modern multilateralism.

It is still early days, but there are several possible strategic goals we can already start considering. These including reducing the size of the problem. Designing for circularity. Ensuring circularity in practice, including supporting waste pickers. And dealing with the legacy, because we must clean up the mess we have already created as well as not piling more pollution on top of it.

Much is still to be agreed. One thing is clear at this stage, however. It is time for governments, industry and civil society to get behind the agreement – or rather get ahead of it.

We have already seen strong industry and civil society engagement, through stakeholder forums at the Open-Ended Working Group in Dakar and around the first meeting of the committee itself. But let me just speak directly to industry and civil society here in terms of what they can do to help.

We are asking polymer producers to make ambitious commitments to shifting their portfoliostowards circular and renewable polymers. We are asking packaging manufacturers to lead a design revolution to shift to reusable packaging at scale and stop producing packaging that has proved to be impossible to recycle. We are asking brands to join manufactures in the packaging shift and invest to increase uptake of recycled plastic. 

And we are asking the waste sector to realize it will be a big winner with the shift to enhanced circularity if it enhances recycling infrastructure. This is crucial: an additional 20 million metric tons of annual recycling capacity in the next five years would get us close to an average 10 per cent recycled content in new plastic products.

What we have are huge opportunities in innovation, which will be critical to drive change. After all, bans alone won’t get us where we want to be. So, we need to ask ourselves how we can innovate to change the way consumers behave. How we can innovate to build markets for recycled products. How we can innovate to disclose and phase out harmful chemicals used in plastic production. And how we can give dignity to waste pickers as we revamp systems.

Of course, civil society can and must drive action. 

We need civil society to keep the pressure on. Through awareness building. Through generating data. Through driving and informing the government to develop and adopt sustainable policies.

It is critical that civil society speaks for the most disadvantaged: waste sector workers. The informal sector is crucial in waste recycling in Pakistan, but most waste pickers are children. We need to hear all voices and take them into account in the development of waste management systems.

Civil society also plays a crucial role in bringing environmental cases in the public interest. Cases have included the protection of the right to water free from pollution, in salt miners vs. director of industries and mineral development. The obligation to uphold environmental policies to protect citizens right to life, in Sheikh Asim Farooq vs. Federation of Pakistan etc. And the right to a clean and healthy environment, in Asghar Leghari vs. Federation of Pakistan.

Civil society, in Pakistan and across the world, must continue to push government and industry, and participate in negotiating process for the plastic pollution agreement.


UNEP is committed to working with Pakistan on plastic pollution and wider triple crisis, because 2022 showed all too well the vulnerabilities of livelihoods and wellbeing in face of the triple planetary crisis – with the floods, in particular, a massive wake-up call.

UNEP will support Pakistan to develop its National Adaptation Plan. The organization is alsofully behind the Living Indus Initiative, by the Government of Pakistan and the UN – which aims to lead and consolidate initiatives to restore the ecological health of the Indus within Pakistan. This initiative includes an element of plastic pollution, with the Zero Plastic Waste Cities along Indus River aiming to reduce plastic ending up in the river.

Robust environmental governance, meaningful collaboration with civil society, and a shared dedication will not just help to end the menace of plastic pollution – it will deal with the triple planetary crisis and create a brighter future for everyone.

Thank you.

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