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Workers sort out plastic bottles in a recycling factory in Bangladesh
World leaders have agreed to tackle the plastic crisis togetherImage: Joy Saha/ZUMA Wire/IMAGO

Talks begin on global treaty to curb plastic pollution

Beatrice Christofaro
November 28, 2022

Negotiators are meeting this week to start hammering out the details of a global agreement on plastic pollution. What's on the table?

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From our packaging to our clothes and appliances, plastic has seeped into almost every aspect of consumption.

But a global treaty to curb this flood of pollution could change things. Earlier this year, world leaders unanimously voted at a United Nations conference to collaborate on a legally binding agreement on plastic by 2024. 

"This is the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the Paris accord. It is an insurance policy for this generation and future ones, so they may live with plastic and not be doomed by it," Inger Andersen, head of the UN Environment Program, said after the decision. 

Now it's time for a negotiating committee, made up of UN delegates, specialized agencies and NGOs, to nail down the details. This week it is meeting in Uruguay for the first round of talks on how to address the production, design and disposal of plastic.

What is the scale of the problem? 

Though there are lots of statistics around plastic production, campaigners say we can't be sure what the hard numbers are. There are no global requirements for the industry to report their output, but the magnitude of the crisis is clear.

The Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, a political foundation in Germany, estimates that 8.3 billion metric tons (9.1 billion US tonsof plastic were produced between 1950 and 2015. That's more than a ton per person living in the world today. Most of it has gone into single use products and packaging. Less than 10% has been recycled. 

The rest is burned, dumped in landfills or littered in nature where animals can choke on it or get tangled up. 

Elefants eating plastic in Sri Lanka
Animals often eat and choke on plastic littered in their habitatImage: Achala Pussalla/AP Photo/picture alliance

Once it's in our ecosystems, plastic can stay there for hundreds of years. It never truly disappears but rather breaks down into ever smaller fragments, which have an even wider reach. Microplastics have found their way into our drinking water, air, soil and food. And as a result, the human body. The science is still divided on the threats to our health.

Yet for all that, production shows no sign of slowing down. The OECD expects consumption to rise from 460 million metric tons in 2019 to 1.2 billion metric tons in 2060 if policies don't change. 

Two sectors are particularly interested in keeping plastic sales growing: the petrochemical and the fossil fuel industries. Because most plastic is made using chemicals derived from oil and natural gas. This feedstock makes up 12% of global oil demand, a share that is expected to grow, according to a 2018 report by the International Energy Agency. 

Solving our plastic bottle problem

Why do we need a global treaty?

Many environmental experts say a global crisis like plastic pollution also calls for a global standard on how to fight the problem.

Right now legislation differs from country to country, and has varying degrees of success. Many laws target plastics that are made from unrecyclable material or are designed to be discarded quickly.

The European Union has banned single use plastic products such as cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates or stirrers. New Zealand also doesn't allow polystyrene food packaging and PVC food trays. Bangladesh and Kenya have banned plastic bags.

Other major pollutants, like the US, don't have any federal laws regulating the use of single use plastics. But the waste has international consequences, whether it is washed to other nations' ecosystems or exported to landfills abroad.

"At the moment we have a real patchwork of legislation," said Christina Dixon of the Environmental Investigation Agency, a UK-based NGO. "But plastic, as a material and as a pollutant, is totally transboundary. So it's incredibly difficult to manage something that's flowing through the air, ocean currents and through trade."

What needs to happen?

Though plastic pollution is often framed as a waste management problem — recycling needs to be ramped up — many experts say we need to look at the source of the problem. 

"You can't deal with plastic pollution without dealing with plastic production," said Dixon.

As virgin plastic production soars, campaigners are pushing for the global treaty to include bans and restrictions on new material. This means the economy would have to rethink consumption, prioritizing reducing and preventing plastic waste over recycling or disposing. 

But for this to happen, there needs to be better data, said Dixon. She wants negotiators to come up with a global standard for sellers to report how much they produce, where they source their petrochemicals and how their plastic is composed. 

"If we have reporting as a minimum legal obligation, it creates the ability to set restrictions on certain types of problematic polymers, to set targets for capping and phasing down production," she said. "Without that reporting piece, the treaty is really going to be set up for failure."

Dixon also hopes the treaty will establish a fund to help developing economies transition away from plastic. High income countries like the US and the UK generated the most plastic waste per capita in 2016, according to a study published in Science Advances. But the effects are felt around the world.  

The committee only has two years to decide on these factors. The tight deadline shows the urgency of the problem, but also makes conditions difficult.

"They have to strike a balance of moving swiftly versus designing a really robust instrument that's going to be effective for years to come," said Dixon.

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