Turning off the plastic tap

The road to an effective plastics treaty

By Jacob Kean-Hammerson and Christina Dixon,

On 3 March 2022, governments from around the world meeting for the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) in Nairobi took a huge step forward in the battle against plastic pollution by agreeing to kickstart negotiations towards a new global plastics treaty.

While the foundations of a global policy response to the mounting plastics problem stretch back years, for our organisation, the Environmental Investigation Agency, the push for a plastics treaty truly picked up pace when, together with partners in the Break Free From Plastics movement, we published Convention on Plastic Pollution – Toward a new global agreement to address plastic pollution, a ‘thought-starter’ making a strong case for the world to commit to a robust agreement along the lines of the hugely successful Montreal Protocol which tackled the hole in the ozone layer.

Leading the charge for a global agreement, EIA’s campaigners used this document to build vital working partnerships with key countries and other organisations and to put the issue squarely before the eyes of governments and decision-makers around the world.

On the face of it, the decision to negotiate another treaty may sound like a long-winded and toothless UN process – grandstanding with no real action.

In fact, this represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to curb the ever-growing plastics crisis threatening to choke the planet and a chance to curtail a woefully unregulated industry.

It is a chance we must not miss.

The plastics crisis

Plastic pollution now exists in every corner of our environmental compartment – from deep ocean trenches to the tops of mountains, it’s in our food, our water, even in our bodies. Plastics fundamentally undermine our planetary health.

When plastics are made, they contribute directly to human-driven climate change through direct emissions. In 2015, the total estimated lifecycle emissions from plastics were 1.78 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e). If the entire plastics lifecycle were a country, it would be the fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.

When plastic becomes waste, it physically pollutes ecosystems and living organisms, from fish and mammals to humans. Just nine per cent of plastic waste has been recycled, with an estimated 79 per cent of all plastic waste ever created currently languishing either in the open environment or in landfill. Unabated, the amount of plastic waste entering marine ecosystems alone could triple from 2016 levels to a projected 23-37 million tonnes per year by 2040.

Far from being one substance, plastics are cocktails of small monomer building blocks, joined together to form polymers, with various chemical additives to change the characteristics of the final products. From available data, we know of more than 10,000 chemicals found in plastic, almost 24 per cent of which are substances of concern and 39 per cent of which are lacking data. These chemicals are loosely bound to plastic polymers and can easily escape, leaching into the environment and causing significant risk to human health.\_zb10euFo

The cause

The plastics pollution epidemic we are facing has multiple root causes, from overwhelmed waste management and an unethical trade in plastic waste to a linear plastics economy based on single-use products.

However, the bottom line is that the unabated and rising production of virgin (aka ‘new’) plastics is the main driver perpetuating the situation in which we find ourselves.

Plastics producers and their well-funded lobby would have you believe that plastics and their single-use applications are a miracle of modern life – safe, convenient and cheap. This is, in fact, by design. Many safe and reliable reusable alternatives exist and with investment in a different, more sustainable, model of consumption they could easily thrive.

Yet producers continue to pump markets full of cheap virgin plastics, suppressing the economic viability of reusable or recycled alternatives and ignoring the environmental externalities.

Much of the production of plastics today is driven, at least in part, by the powerful oil and gas industry, cynically hedging their bets against any serious action to tackle climate change which would reduce demand for their products in the energy sector.

Make no mistake – plastics are fossil fuels and 99 per cent of the plastics placed on the market use crude oil, fossil gas or coal as feedstocks to create the petrochemicals needed for production. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), petrochemicals account for 14 per cent and eight per cent of total demand for oil and gas, respectively, and will soon become one of the world’s biggest drivers of oil demand.

A global solution to a planetary crisis

Today, there is no single global framework to address the world’s mounting plastics pollution crisis. Governance of plastics is largely non-existent and currently sits between several international agreements, regional regulations, domestic policy and voluntary industry commitments.

This piecemeal approach to the governance of plastics has allowed production and consumption to expand unchecked and enables unsustainable business models to proliferate and bad faith actors to exploit the system.

The global community has reacted to similar crises in the past by agreeing legally binding measures through international environmental agreements. The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, widely regarded as the single most successful international environmental agreement ever, has set the ozone layer on a course to recovery by phasing down ozone-depleting substances.

The UNEA Resolution 5/14 agreed this March, which sets out the mandate for the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to craft the detail of an instrumental capable of ending plastic pollution, now gives us the chance to do the same for plastics. Interventions need to be made across the plastics lifecycle. Improving end-of-life measures such as waste management and recycling will, of course, be necessary, but measures further upstream will be vitally important – after all, you can’t mop up the floor the while the tap is still running.

The treaty’s ultimate success in stopping plastics pollution will be defined by the inclusion of measures which can lead to the truly sustainable production and consumption of plastics.

These includes measures on reducing global virgin plastic production, with a focus on restricting the production of the most harmful and unnecessary plastic polymers so that a vision for a safe and non-toxic circular economy is truly possible.

The mandate given to the negotiating committee leaves these measures on the table. The ambition is there, now we need action.

The urgency of the plastics crisis was reflected in the timeframe UNEA gave to negotiate a new treaty – two-and-a-half years. Two-and-a-half years to redefine the way the planet creates, uses and disposes of plastics.

We must make it count.