The UN is closing in on a global agreement negotiators hope will end plastic pollution
Plastics! Just one word epitomizes human ingenuity creating convenience and comfort while prompting pollution and planetary-scale perils.
More than 160 United Nations members are negotiating a legally binding treaty to chart a planet-saving course away from unsustainable production, use and disposal of plastics choking the environment. Negotiating points cover plastics’ design, lifecycle, reuse and recycling; international collaboration and aid to developing nations and capping or even phasing out plastics production.
While there may be agreements on broad points, details remain to be worked out.
“We all need to drive towards ending plastic pollution,” Acting Assistant Secretary of State Jennifer R. Littlejohn told Climate & Capital Media. “How we get there is going to look different in different places, but an international agreement will be a guiding light toward that important and ambitious goal.”
The mess we make
We rely on plastics to keep our foods fresher longer and drinking water cleaner, for medical devices keeping us alive, for vehicle parts keeping our cars lighter and more efficient, for durable casings keeping our computers and phones functioning and for thousands of other uses.
Only 9% of the world’s plastic waste actually gets recycled.
The world produced 507 million tons (460 million metric tonnes) of plastics in 2019, double from 2000, according to the 28-member nation Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
But, as comedian Jerry Seinfeld points out about garbage, “Everything is thrown out in the end.”
For plastics, the end comes most quickly for packaging, consumer products and textiles, which accounted for two-thirds of the 390 tons (353 tonnes) of plastic waste generated in 2019, the OECD said, noting that figure also is double the amount discarded in 2000.
Incredibly, the OECD reports that only 9% of the world’s plastic waste actually gets recycled. The rest — incinerated, dumped or washed into rivers and oceans — threatens wildlife survival on land and sea as well as human health. People are now eating about a credit-card size portion of microplastics weekly according to a 2019 study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund.
Plastics also account for 3.4% of climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions, with 90% of those emissions coming from production and fossil fuels conversion, the OECD said. Left unchecked, emissions will double by 2060 while global plastic triples and plastic leaking into the environment doubles, OECD warns.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee began its plastics treaty work in 2022 and has a completion goal of 2024 to underscore its works’ urgency.
“The truth is we cannot recycle our way out of this mess,” Inger Andersen, UN under secretary general of and executive director of the UN Environment Program (UNEP), said in May when the committee met for its second round of negotiations.
“We cannot recycle our way out of this mess.”
What should a trend-reversing plastics treaty look like?
After the May meeting, the UN summed up options mentioned in talks so far. It invited industrial and environmental groups and other observers to weigh in on points to include, add or drop from the treaty.
OPEC, the Plastics Industry Association, the International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA) and others agree with environmental groups, for example, to support good stewardship encouraging a plastics circular economy. That means repeatedly reusing and repurposing plastics to extend their life and prevent them from being dumped into landfills and oceans. Then there’s plastics production.
“We’re championing a global agreement to achieve the goal of eliminating plastic pollution while retaining the societal benefits of plastics,” the ICCA said, pointing to its circularity Our Ambition plan to “keep plastics in our economy and out of our environment.”
“Sustainable production and consumption of plastics in the context of circularity has to be at the core of any future instrument,” said OPEC. “Restricting the use or production of plastics through an international instrument without a careful analysis of alternatives risks putting plastics at a disadvantage.”
“The Global Plastics Treaty must tackle plastic production head on.”
The petrochemical industry including plastics and synthetic fibers is a small portion of OPEC’s $888 billion in revenue from 2022 oil exports. However, the International Energy Agency forecasts the sector will “remain the key driver of global oil demand growth” at least through 2028.
“Oil producing countries and the fossil fuel industry will do everything in their power to weaken the treaty and delay the process,” Graham Forbes, Greenpeace’s Global Plastics Campaign lead, said. “The Global Plastics Treaty must tackle plastic production head on. This will align with the need to stay within 1.5 degrees C [of global warming] and move the world away from its plastic addiction. Anything less than that, and the treaty will fail.”
That can mean making and consuming less virgin plastic to begin with, innovating production and design to weed out waste before it’s made, keeping plastics in use longer, and going beyond recycling when plastic is tossed in the garbage.
Greenpeace urges the defining of essential plastics and uses not based on existing uses and economic viability to encourage innovation.
Start by focusing on product packaging and other short-lived plastics uses and develop sector-specific programs later, the Macarthur Foundation said. Unfortunately, many people rely on single-use plastics.
Flexibility and aid for developing nations is a treaty necessity according to Jihane Ball, sustainability director at Dow. She recalls growing up in war-torn Lebanon, where her family relied on bottled water because access to water and quality were not reliable.
“Reducing the availability of plastics, without first fixing the foundational issue of water quality and security, leaves people behind,” she wrote in a company-sponsored article.
Across Asia, Africa and the Middle East, plastic sachets allow poor consumers to buy palm-size amounts of everyday products from laundry detergent to seasonings and snacks from big companies including Unilever, Nestle and Procter & Gamble, Reuters reports. The 855 billion plastic sachets sold every year could cover the Earth’s surface, London-based environmental group A Plastic Planet told Reuters. These small packages are not easily recycled and often end up as litter.
The 855 billion plastic sachets sold every year could cover the Earth’s surface.
Among other issues are the 13,000 chemicals that go into plastics, but, as the ICCA said, help prevent medical equipment from melting during sterilization, enable wind turbines and solar panels to withstand the elements and allow cars to absorb more impact; recognizing “significant contributions” by the often informally organized waste pickers plucking and sorting plastics for recycling so they can earn much needed income; and possible fees and taxes on plastic production, use or disposal to generate revenue that to finance initiatives to reduce plastic waste.
“As we look forward to continuing negotiations in Nairobi, our goals at INC-3 are to listen to other countries’ perspectives, share our ideas based on what is included in the zero-draft text and support a strong role for all stakeholders in both the INC process and as part of the future instrument,” a U.S. State Department official told Climate & Capital Media.
We’ve been throwing out various forms of plastics since the 1860s, when combs, buttons and knife handles made of newly invented Parkesine, touted by the New York Times as the next “big thing,” and billiard balls made from celluloid were considered potential respites for hunted elephants, tortoises and coral. Just as oil pumping eased the hunt for whales for their oil, “It will be no longer necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are growing scarcer,” boasted celluloid advertising.
Now plastic discards are suffocating coral reefs and our oceans.
A UN treaty could be what’s needed to push human ingenuity to clean up a world awash in plastic waste without causing all new global challenges.