The “biggest multilateral environmental deal” since the 2015 Paris climate agreement has just been signed. 175 countries have agreed to a legally binding global treaty to attempt to end the plastic pollution crisis by tackling the entire material supply chain.
Doesn’t it make sense? The world produces over 380 million tons of plastic every year, and up to 50% of that is for single-use purposes. There are about 8.3 billion tons of plastic in the world — and some 6.3 billion tons of that is trash.
Why can’t we transition to reusing these existing plastics already in circulation instead of creating new ones? We can — but the vast plastics industry is doing all it can to stop such a moratorium.
At a meeting of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) in Nairobi, Kenya, countries passed a resolution on the first treaty to directly tackle the 9 billion tons of plastic produced since the plastic age ramped up in the 1950s. UNEA president Espen Barth Eide celebrated the result by pounding a gavel made from recycled plastic.
The legally binding agreement encompasses all stages of plastic, from production to consumption and disposal. Inger Anderson, executive director of the UN Environment Program, explains the resolution text “speaks to full life cycle; it speaks to a financing mechanism; it speaks to understanding some countries can do it more easily than others.”
Anderson adds, “It has been a long, hard road.”
Advocates of a more ambitious treaty won out, as two competing ideas had been put forward.
- One, led by Peru and Rwanda, encompassed all stages of plastic’s life cycle, from production to consumption and disposal.
- The second was a far more limited deal focused on plastics in the oceans, spearheaded by Japan.
The deal acknowledges that lower-income countries will find it harder to grapple with plastic and pollution than high-income ones and, so, there is a need for some sort of financing model to help curb plastic use and waste.
Steve Fletcher at the University of Portsmouth, UK, told the New Scientist, “The best way to tackle plastic pollution is to prevent it in the first place. By covering the whole supply chain, a global agreement to tackle plastic pollution can support upstream solutions such as reducing or replacing plastic in products. There is a broad consensus that global coordination is best achieved through a legally binding agreement.”
Work now begins on how to implement the treaty by 2024. Anderson hopes the treaty will take effect within 3 years. She says one example of how legally-binding limits might be implemented is limiting how much virgin polymer is put into economies. In a statement, Marco Lambertini of WWF International said the treaty must have “clear and strong global standards and targets.”
The Problem with Plastics & Corporate Complicity
Plastics and microplastics are now ubiquitous in our natural environment. They are becoming part of the Earth’s fossil record and a marker of the Anthropocene, our current geological era. They have even given their name to a new marine microbial habitat called the “plastisphere.” Plastics are increasingly found in all environmental media, including terrestrial ecosystems and the atmosphere, as well as human matrices, including lungs and placenta.
Some 98% of single-use plastic products are produced from fossil fuel, or “virgin” feedstock. The level of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production, use, and disposal of conventional fossil fuel-based plastics is forecast to grow to 19% of the global carbon budget by 2040. Only 8.7% of all plastic waste was recycled in 2018 in the US.
Clearly, we should reduce the tide of plastic that is manufactured in the first place.
A sweeping piece of legislation called the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2021 sets goals to reduce the manufacture of new plastic, like a requirement that plastic beverage bottles be made of at least 50% post-consumer recycled material by 2030 and 80% by 2040. It also proposes a moratorium on expanded plastic production facilities until they can undergo an environmental impact assessment from the EPA.
Although plastic is technically a sustainable material because it can be recreated in new forms, it’s far cheaper to make new products from scratch. And that’s the problem. Plastic manufacturers are doing everything they can to fight back against these efforts to ban new plastics.
Reuters reports that leading effort against a plastics moratorium is the American Chemistry Council (ACC), a powerful group of US-based oil and chemical firms. The Washington-based ACC is attempting to forge a coalition of big businesses to help steer treaty discussions away from production restrictions. Among its claims are that global inequality would worsen due to increased food waste and less access to clean water in the developing world if restrictions were enacted.
Industry tactics in the face of the unprecedented plastic pollution crisis and growing public pressure to address it are nuanced and coercive. Behind the veil of nice-sounding initiatives and commitments, the industry has obstructed and undermined proven legislative solutions for decades. Voluntary initiatives have failed to contain the plastics crisis, and companies have used these initiatives as a tactic to delay and derail progressive legislation — all while distracting consumers and governments with empty promises and false solutions.
Want to know more about corporate plastics pollution subterfuge? Check out the exposé, “Talking Trash.”
Governments Need to Take Charge of Plastic Pollution Solutions
Governments are key actors in the plastics value chain, as they set the rules everyone else must follow. The UN has offered a series of guidelines to help governments set policies in an integrated way to ensure the necessary systemic changes to avert more plastic pollution.
- Eliminate unnecessary plastic products through bans coupled with the promotion of sustainable alternatives, such as reusable alternatives that can replace single-use plastic products
- Promote innovation so reuse systems are the norm rather than the exception
- Ensure materials circulate for as long as possible with necessary waste collection and material recycling infrastructure in place
- Build in financing mechanisms that ensure whole supply chain sustainability
- Make plastic producers take significant responsibility for the end of life management of their products
- Provide incentives that favor those product types that are best for the economy and the environment, such as reusable options and those incorporating recycled content
- Run public awareness campaigns that encourage behavior change by offering incentives for reducing, reusing, and recycling, or introducing fines for those that don’t
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