The future of plastics: a new global treaty?

Plastics pollution is one of the hardest environmental issues to tackle because non-biodegradable waste is spreading across the globe, even to its remotest locations. We can find plastic waste as high as Mount Everest’s peak, and as deep as the Earth’s most cavernous ocean trench. In addition to the greenhouse gas emissions from materials extraction, refining and production, poor plastic waste management is creating millions of tons of marine litter and land pollution. This puts plastics at the root of each of the UN Environment Programme’s three planetary crises: climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. Despite plastics’ worldwide reach, there is no concerted global effort to addresses the problem directly, highlighting the need for a harmonized approach, potentially in the form of a global plastics treaty.

Global plastics production grew from 15 million metric tons in 1964 to 311 million in 2014, increasing twentyfold in just 50 years. In recent years, production has reached close to 400 million tons but that total now outstrips plastic recycling with a global average of less than 9 percent, and less than 10 percent of all plastic waste in the United States. This mismatch has grave environmental costs and impacts including greenhouse gas emissions, pollutants in the environment, and waste resulting in marine debris, biodiversity and health impacts.

Plastics are closely linked to the world’s oil production, and therefore harmful greenhouse gas emissions. Between 4 and 8 percent of oil produced globally is used to make plastics, about the same amount of oil consumed each year by the global aviation sector, with natural gas being a growing source of plastics too. Cumulative global greenhouse gas emissions from plastics production and use are projected to reach more than 56 gigatons, roughly 10-13 percent of the remaining greenhouse gas emissions that could trigger the worst effects of climate change. These emissions from the plastics lifecycle pose a threat to the goal of keeping global heating to within 1.5 degrees Celsius, especially given the recent IPCC report.

Between 5 million and 13 million metric tons of plastic waste each year globally becomes visible pollution, the latest consequence of poor management of plastics through their lifecycle. Around 11 million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean every year, making it one of the most damaging sources of marine pollution. All in all, the total environmental costs to society and consumers were USD 139 billion globally in 2015 and is expected to grow to USD 209 billion by 2025 per year.

It is, therefore, no wonder that the use of plastic—and in particular single-use plastic—is coming under greater scrutiny. Given the risk that the growth of the plastics industry and plastic waste poses for the future, it is increasingly important to address plastic throughout its lifecycle: fossil fuel extraction, plastics refining, production and manufacturing, distribution, consumption and usage, and waste management. Plastics are particularly challenging to manage because of the many different types and uses, primarily single-use, recyclable, and microplastics.

Many countries have begun taking action to deal with issues of marine litter, single-use plastics, and plastic waste management. Some examples are the EU’s directive on single-use plastics, ASEAN member states adopting a regional action plan to tackle plastic pollution, and Kenya banning plastic bags. Another such voluntary effort is the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment and Plastics Pact, which encourages businesses to begin setting concrete targets and goals for a circular economy for plastics. While such initiatives through corporate and government action are on the rise, their voluntary nature is unable to drive systematic change that the entire plastics economy requires.

A real solution includes accountability, transparency, monitoring and responsible action on a global scale.

This points toward a new global treaty that would allow nations to create, and drive harmonized and concerted international, multi-stakeholder level systematic change to the entire plastics regime from production to waste management and recycling. A global treaty could: highlight a high level of long-term commitment; enable effective action to take place nationally; and encourage ambitious action and progress internationally. To that end, 78 UN Member States so far have endorsed a proposal for an international treaty, tabled as part of The Ocean Day Plastic Pollution Declaration on June 1, 2021, at the President of the UN General Assembly’s High-Level Meeting on Oceans. Momentum behind the idea of a treaty is growing, with the first-ever global Ministerial conference on marine litter and plastic pollution to be held in September 2021.

A global treaty on plastics could set out a legally binding commitment to eliminate plastic pollution leakage, especially into oceans, and establish the need for national targets and plans for plastic reduction, recycling, and management. It could also bring the importance of a circular plastics economy to the forefront by highlighting the idea that poor plastic management is the largest cause of plastic pollution. The treaty can thus encourage deployment of appropriate policy instruments at national and sub-national levels, including producer responsibility and accountability of waste management, monitoring and compliance measures relating to production, collection, and waste management, and facilitate collaborations between industries and civil society for a systems-based approach.

It should be known that all plastics aren’t the enemy: they have a multitude of advantages that we continue to benefit from. By addressing the negative aspects of plastics production and use discussed, we can minimize the negative impacts and still benefit from the considerable positive aspects of plastics in the global economy.

The impacts of plastic pollution are transboundary, and the plastics industry is international—this calls for a concerted and harmonized global effort that holds the significant actors legally responsible and accountable for the harm that the plastics economy is causing. With the urgency of the climate crisis being outlined in the latest IPCC report, endorsement of such a plastics treaty might be the push we need for a coordinated and streamlined global response to deliver on timely action to address this issue that lies at the heart of all ‘three planetary crises.’