Bernadette Besebes of Palau
December 1, 2022
Waste Management and Pollution Control

30 November 2022, Punta del Este - Palau’s case as to why the global community must accelerate the process of negotiating an ambitious and comprehensive global treaty to end plastic pollution, was met with applause at the Punta del Este Convention and Exhibition Centre, on Monday.

Addressing the plenary of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC1) to frame a global legally binding instrument, covering the whole life cycle of plastics, Ms Bernie Besebes, Project Coordinator of the Palau Environmental Quality Protection Board, spoke passionately about her country’s struggles with uninvited plastics.

“I pick up all kinds of plastics on my grandfather’s beach, and it is heart breaking to know that the next day, there will be more,” she said. “The huge quantities of plastics that wash up on our shores are not traceable. There is no one to take responsibility for the pollution, but us. We must put it in our landfill, shortening the lifespan of the facility.”

This week, Ms Besebes has travelled thousands of miles and crossed many different time zones, along with other delegates from Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Tuvalu, to amplify our Pacific’s voice as negotiators begin the arduous process of negotiating measures and obligations related to the development of the legally binding treaty.

“Palauans have grave concerns about the environmental, social, cultural, economic, human health and, food security impacts of plastics pollution. This further exacerbates the climate change impacts we are already experiencing,” Ms Besebes said.

She reminded that Palau is a small island nation in the north Pacific, and like many Pacific Small Island Developing States, they are a non-plastic producing country but they are at the forefront of the impacts of plastic pollution.

“Pacific SIDS are disproportionately impacted by plastics and marine plastic pollution.”

So what does Palau want come from INC1? Ms Besebes said delegates in Punta del Este must take a comprehensive approach to the issue, from sourcing of plastics to the end-of-life cycle management and remediation of releases.

“Palau hopes that by the end of this week we have a clear way forward on how we will end plastic pollution. We need an ambitious and comprehensive global treaty, that includes control measures to protect our human health; the climate system and the environment; and to promote a non-toxic circular economy for plastics. Without these elements we will not succeed,” she said.

“We need a clear programme of work for the INCs - including intersessional activities and clusters for each stage of the life cycle that promote dedicated conversations, on the design of the instrument and means of implementation that will enable Pacific SIDs like Palau, to fully implement the objectives of the instrument. This includes clear mechanisms for capacity building, technology transfer and support for plastic pollution prevention. We have a robust national agenda, but this issue is bigger than us.”

While Palau, Ms Besebes said, has a sophisticated waste management system and a newly opened national landfill built based on a survey of locally generated waste, the daily washing up of plastics of unknown origins on the island’s shores has left them with no choice but to call for a urgent global action to address the issue now.

“The outcome of the INC will not only help Palau, but the rest of the countries here safeguard the health of our people and our environment. I hope that in my lifetime, I will no longer have to pick up plastics of unknown origins on my grandfather’s beach,” she said.

“We have the eyes of the world watching us. Let’s not replicate other agreements which do not get to the problem at source. We need something comprehensive that puts prevention at the heart of policy.”

Representatives from the Pacific have joined more than 2500 delegates in Uruguay for INC1.  The proposed timetable involves four more INC meetings through November 2024, and UNEP will report on the INC’s progress during the sixth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly in February 2024. Once INC negotiations are completed, UNEP is expected to convene a diplomatic conference to adopt the instrument and open it for signatures.

The first Intergovernmental negotiating committee to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment is taking place in Punta del Este, Uruguay from 28 November–2 December 2022. 

The Pacific Islands are represented by Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Tuvalu through the support of the Government of Australia and the United Nations.

They are supported by the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) with financial assistance from the Government of Australia.  SPREP is working with partners the Office of the Pacific Ocean Commissioner, Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, University of Newcastle, Environmental Investigation Agency, Centre for International Environmental Law, University of Wollongong, WWF and Massey University.