People who regularly work or visit the United Nations headquarters in New York have surely noticed something new in the cafeteria this summer: no more single-use plastic, not even for takeout.
The change also means that only metal cutlery is available at the condiment stations and the straws are now paper (plastic ones are available for people with disabilities). Takeaway utensils are made of compostable wood, and plastic cups have been replaced with recyclable ones.
The global dignitaries attending the Sept. 23 climate change summit, and the opening session of the General Assembly, will also be greeted by a reminder — or warning — hanging outside the 42nd Street entrance: “NO SINGLE-USE PLASTIC at the United Nations.”
For the most part, UN folks who use the cafeterias support the ban. Dominic Mwatete, a security official, said that while he doesn’t like the taste of food when using the compostable spoons, “plastic affects the environment and Asia won’t take our trash from the West anymore.”
Mwatete, who hails from Kenya, noted how his country’s plastic-bag ban helped eliminate “heaps of plastic” in Nairobi, the capital. Kenya’s ban must have the heftiest fines in the world: $40,000 or up to four years’ imprisonment for producing, selling or even carrying a plastic bag.
The woman behind the elimination of single-use plastics from the UN headquarters in New York is the General Assembly president, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, of Ecuador. She dedicated her one-year term, which began in September 2018, to an “attainable goal,” she said: getting the UN to “walk the walk” on single-use plastic.
Espinosa told PassBlue that she decided to focus on plastic because it is connected to climate change and is “a crisis we can avert as humans, and one that is not only killing the ocean but affecting human health.”
Plastic has famously accumulated in gyres such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and broken down into microplastics that end up in the digestive tracks of marine life, birds and even humans. It also undermines the ocean’s ability to store carbon from the atmosphere.
According to the UN Environmental Program’s most recent Global Environmental Outlook, not only have plastic particles been found in the “intestines of fish from all oceans and in products such as sea salt,” microplastics appear in food consumed by humans, with largely unstudied health effects.
Getting the UN to do its part on banning plastic not only at the New York headquarters but also at its bases in Geneva and Rome has become a defining feature of Espinosa’s presidency.
Yet like most goals at the UN, roadblocks came up. On the way to banning plastic use in the UN dining facilities, which are run by an outside vendor, CulinArt Group, Espinosa’s team also negotiated to ensure that other external vendors working inside the UN would minimize the use of single-use plastic.
Espinosa, who is a former foreign minister and defense minister for her country, prevailed. Within less than a year of launching her campaign, the cafeteria began to look more ecologically minded.
“We took an incremental approach, but by June we completely eliminated all single-use plastics at the UN,” including in packaging used by the dining facilities’ kitchens, Espinosa said. She added that she also wrote to all 193 UN member states to ban single-use plastic at their country missions.
Some, such as Oman, have done so. Norway’s mission was already using reusable utensils in its new office, among other similar changes.
Although the UN cafeterias have eliminated single-use plastics, recyclables such as plastic water bottles abound at headquarters, as do recycling bins with all sorts of garbage filling them up each day. Most of the trash, recycling and food waste are handled by Five Star Carting, which declined to comment on how it manages the UN’s recyclables once it is picked up from headquarters.
The company’s website claims that it offers a “single-stream” program and has a greater recycling capacity than “any other privately held company in NYC,” but there is no proof of that. The person who answered the phone at Five Star refused to give details and hung up on a reporter.
An official in Espinosa’s office said that although the plastic stream from cafeterias has not been measured, it is “most likely down to zero, [so] what needs to be recycled?”
As her term ends and the new General Assembly debate begins on Sept. 17, Espinosa hands the presidency — and the UN’s commitment to reducing single-use plastic consumption — to Nigeria’s permanent representative, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, who was elected by the General Assemby in June.
“I am sure that he will continue with the campaign, not only to have a plastic-free UN, but also to reach out to the key players around the world to make sure we take it very seriously,” Espinosa said.
One of Muhammad-Bande’s first tasks as president will be to oversee the Climate Action Summit, the kickoff meeting of this year’s General Assembly proceedings. The summit aims to challenge not only countries and cities to specifically describe their progress on mitigating climate change, as outlined in the Paris Agreement, but also “companies, investors and citizens to step up action” in nine areas, according to the summit website.
The overriding goal of the conference is to take advantage of all the global leaders’ presence at the UN in September to keep the conversation going on reducing carbon emissions, said one UN official.
The nine areas of focus were chosen based on their “high potential to curb greenhouse gas emissions and increased global action on adaptation and resilience.” Each area was assigned to coalitions of countries and UN agency heads to design plans to ensure results and carry out the next steps.
Some women’s advocacy organizations think too little attention is being devoted to gender and climate change at the conference.
And none of the action areas address plastic pollution, its impact on the oceans or on human health. Nor is it mentioned in any of the work plans.
Espinosa, who was involved in defining the categories, said, “Plastics really has an impact on climate change, but it can be addressed in so many other clusters, for example, on urban issues.”
However, the work plan on cities is almost entirely focused on low-emission and resilient infrastructure and financing such changes. Espinosa said there may be side events focused on plastic but couldn’t confirm whether they would materialize.
Certain countries have made concerted steps about the use of plastic. Worldwide, 127 countries have taken actions on banning plastic bags, and in June at the UN, Sweden and the Bahamas broke the so-called silence procedure while the General Assembly drafted a political declaration for the high-level political forum on sustainable development. The event is also being held in September.
According to a letter obtained by PassBlue, Sweden and the Bahamas forced the declaration to include the wording “discharge of plastic litter into the oceans” in a list of environmental phenomenons that will “bring potentially disastrous consequences for humanity.” The language amends a clause that enumerates where progress has slowed on the Sustainable Development Goals.
Plastic aside, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has said that he wants the climate summit to result in tangible actions by member countries, hence the nine areas of action. Bridget Burns, the director of Women’s Environment and Development Organization, a nongovernmental group, is wary.
“We are cautious of expecting any real action from these conferences, but are interested in countries coming to pick up the challenge of the secretary-general and showcase how they are going to commit to those areas,” Burns told PassBlue.
Her organization, known as WEDO, helps women working at the grass-roots level to participate in environmental policy forums, among other goals. (Founded in 1991, its originators were Bella Abzug, the US Congresswoman from New York, and Mim Kelber, a journalist.)
Burns is not happy that gender is sidelined in the action portfolios in the climate meeting. “In the climate space, I often use the metaphor of a tree,” she said. “Gender is seen as a nice bauble, not a fundamental root holding up climate action.
“But studies show that investing in women’s and girl’s education, access to rights, helps to increase a country’s resilience against vulnerability and better equips women to mitigate climate change — in their consumption patterns, bodily autonomy and making more sustainable choices for them and their families.”
Women’s stake in environmental policymaking is large. According to one estimate, for example, the risk of breast cancer for women working in the plastics industry is elevated five times above the normal level. In addition, products and food can contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that interfere with normal hormone functioning and have been linked to polycystic ovarian syndrome and reduced sperm count and genital abnormalities in men.
Women and girls are also disproportionately affected by changing weather patterns linked directly or indirectly to climate change.
“Women have an important role to play on climate change because it particularly affects girls and women, who are more vulnerable to becoming climate refugees due to displacement, weather-related disasters, drought and flooding,” Espinosa said.
At the UN climate gathering, however, Burns says the subsection on gender concentrates only on women’s role in changing consumption patterns — an “individual change,” she called it.
“We can’t leave it at the individual — if industry itself is going to shift, women also need to be a part of an active and voting citizenry.”
Yet, she adds, “we are pushing hard for countries to sign on to a commitment for gender equality at the summit.”
This article was updated to better reflect the position of WEDO on the summit.
Kacie Candela is an assistant editor for PassBlue and a news anchor and reporter with WFUV, a public radio station in the Bronx, N.Y., where she covers the UN and other beats. Her work has won various awards from the New York State Associated Press Association, New York State Broadcasters Association, PRNDI, and the Alliance for Women in Media.