UN tries to tackle global plastic pollution

Plastic pollution is accumulating all over the world, on land and in the oceans. According to a widely quoted estimate, by 2025, between 100 and 250 million tonnes of plastic debris could enter the ocean each year. Another study commissioned by the World Economic Forum predicts that, without changes to current practices, there could be more plastic by weight than fish in the ocean by 2050.

On March 2, 2022, representatives from 175 countries around the world took a historic step to end this pollution. The United Nations Environment Assembly has voted to task a committee with forging a legally binding global treaty on plastic pollution by 2024.

UN Environment Program Executive Director Inger Andersen described it as “an insurance policy for this generation and future ones, so they can live with plastic”. and not be condemned for it.

I am a lawyer and have studied issues related to food, animal welfare and environmental law. My upcoming book, “Our Plastic Problem and How to Solve It,” explores legislation and policies to address this global “thorny problem.”

I believe plastic pollution requires a local, national and global response. While it will be difficult to act together on a global scale, lessons learned from some other environmental treaties suggest features that could improve the chances of a successful agreement.

Plastic pollution, a widespread problem

Scientists have discovered plastic in some of the most remote regions of the world, from polar ice to Texas-sized gyres in the middle of the ocean. Plastic can enter the environment from a myriad of sources, from laundry sewage and illegal dumping to waste incineration and accidental spills.

Plastic never completely degrades. Instead, it breaks down into tiny particles and fibers that are easily ingested by fish, birds, and land animals. Larger pieces of plastic can carry invasive species and accumulate in coastal and freshwater environments, disrupting ecosystem functions.

A 2021 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on plastic pollution in the oceans concluded that “[s]Without changes to current practices…plastics will continue to accumulate in the environment, especially in the ocean, with adverse consequences for ecosystems and society”

National policies are not enough

To solve this problem, the United States has focused on managing and recycling waste rather than regulating plastic producers and the companies that use plastic in their products. Failure to address the sources means policies have limited impact. This is especially true since the United States generates 37.5 million tons of plastic per year, but recycles only about 9%.

Some countries, such as France and Kenya, have banned single-use plastics. Others, like Germany, have imposed deposit systems for plastic bottles. Canada has classified manufactured plastic items as toxic, giving its national government broad authority to regulate them.

However, in my opinion, these efforts will also fail if the countries that produce and use the most plastic do not adopt policies throughout its life cycle.

A growing consensus on plastic pollution

Plastic pollution crosses borders, so countries must work together to stop it. But existing treaties like the 1989 Basel Convention, which governs the international transport of hazardous waste, and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea offer little leverage, for several reasons.

First, these treaties were not specifically designed to deal with plastic. Second, the biggest plastic polluters, especially the United States, have not joined these agreements. Alternative international approaches, such as the Ocean Plastics Charter, which encourages global and regional governments and companies to design plastic products for reuse and recycling, are voluntary and non-binding.

Fortunately, many global and business leaders now support a uniform, standardized and coordinated global approach to the management and disposal of plastic waste in treaty form.

The American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group, supports an agreement that will accelerate the transition to a more circular economy that promotes waste reduction and reuse by focusing on waste collection, product design and recycling technology.

U.S. plastic manufacturers and the International Council of Chemical Associations have also made public statements in support of a global agreement to set “a specific goal to ensure access to proper waste management and eliminate plastic leakage in the ocean”.

However, these organizations argue that plastic products can help reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, for example by allowing car manufacturers to build lighter cars, and are likely to oppose to an agreement limiting the production of plastic. In my view, this makes government leadership and action essential.

The Biden administration has also signaled support for a treaty and will send Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the Nairobi meeting. On February 11, 2022, the White House issued a joint statement with France expressing support for the negotiation of a “global agreement to address the full life cycle of plastics and promote a circular economy”.

The first draft treaties describe two contradictory approaches. One seeks to reduce plastic throughout its life cycle, from production to disposal, a strategy that would likely include methods such as banning or phasing out single-use plastic products.

A contrasting approach focuses on eliminating plastic waste through innovation and design, such as spending more on waste collection, recycling and developing environmentally friendly plastics.

Elements of an Effective Treaty

Countries have come together to solve environmental problems before. The global community has successfully addressed acid rain, stratospheric ozone depletion and mercury pollution through international treaties. These agreements, which include the United States, provide strategies for a plastics treaty.

The Montreal Protocol, for example, required countries to report their production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances so that countries could hold each other accountable. Under the Convention on Long-Range Air Pollution, countries agreed to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions, but were allowed to choose whichever method worked best for them. For the United States, this involved a system of buying and selling emissions rights that was part of the amendments to the Clean Air Act of 1990.

Based on these precedents, I see plastic as a good candidate for an international treaty. Like ozone, sulfur and mercury, plastic comes from specific and identifiable human activities that occur around the world. Many countries contribute to this, so the problem is cross-border in nature.

In addition to providing a framework to keep plastic out of the ocean, I believe a plastic pollution treaty should include reduction targets for producing less plastic and generating less waste that are specific, measurable and achievable. The treaty should be binding but flexible, allowing countries to achieve these goals as they wish.

In my view, the negotiations must take into account the interests of those who experience the disproportionate impacts of plastic, as well as those who make a living recycling waste in the informal economy. Finally, an international treaty should promote collaboration and the sharing of data, resources and best practices.

Since plastic pollution does not stay in one place, all nations will benefit from finding ways to reduce it.

This article was written by Sarah J. Morath, associate professor at Wake Forest University in the United States. It is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Articles in English

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