'Plastic pollution has grown into an epidemic. With today’s resolution we are officially on track for a cure.' Espen Barth Eide, Minister of Climate and the Environment of Norway, at the United
Nations Environment Assembly, 2nd March 2022
Image credit: Mohamed Abdulraheem, Shutterstock.com
Why is There an ‘Epidemic’ of Plastic Pollution?
Plastic production has quadrupled over the last 30 years. Single-use plastic products – such as water bottles, food packaging, sachets – mostly end up in landfill or as unregulated waste. Every minute, the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic is dumped into our oceans, and this is expected to triple by 2040.
And is this Affecting our Health?
Most plastic items break down into microplastics, which can now be found in our food and drink. When these are ingested, the body is exposed to additives in plastics which are associated with cancers, diabetes, kidney, liver, and thyroid impacts, metabolic disorders, neurological impacts, inflammation, and infertility.
But We Can Just Recycle this Plastic, Right?
This is a myth: the vast majority of plastic waste is still not recyclable, and only 9% of all plastic has ever been recycled. We cannot recycle our way out of this. Also plastic recycling workers have increased rates of cardiovascular disease, toxic metal poisoning, neuropathy, and lung cancer.
So What is the ‘Cure’ for this Epidemic?
Possibly one of the most significant environmental pacts in history. In February 2022, 175 countries of the United Nations Environment Assembly voted to develop a Global Plastics Treaty - an international legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution by the end of 2024.
And this Rreaty will Make International Laws about Pollution from Plastic Waste?
Not just waste. The UN Intergovernmental negotiating committee (INC) will address pollution across the full life cycle of – from manufacture to disposal. This could cover greenhouse gas emissions, air pollutants, and toxic chemicals used in plastic production.
How Can a Life Cycle Approach Inform Decisions?
An example is a life cycle assessment of single use plastics which has identified that reusable products are environmentally preferable to single use products, regardless of the material used. Reuse systems, and a move towards a circular economy for plastics, would limit the presence of waste plastics in the environment. A shift to a circular economy can reduce the volume of plastics entering oceans by over 80 per cent by 2040.
Do we Also Need to Limit Plastic Production?
Yes. Plastics are produced from fossil fuels and oil and gas companies are planning to double their production over the next 2 decades. But already, the predicted growth in plastic waste exceeds any efforts to mitigate pollution. Greenpeace stresses that the treaty must be ambitious and must cut plastic production by establishing 'global legally-binding control measures'. However it is likely that the plastics industry will fight production limits. At the first treaty negotiations on 2nd December 2022, the CEO of the Plastics Industry Association insisted that increasing recycling was the best approach to dealing with plastic waste.
So Will a Plastics Treaty Produce Meaningful Change?
There is a broad consensus that an effective treaty is our one big chance to solve the plastics problem, but negotiations have been split on whether goals and efforts should be global and mandatory, or voluntary and country-led. The next session will be on 29th May 2023 in Paris.
The requirement for stringent measures to reduce the growth of plastic consumption is underlined by a sobering report from the ‘Back to Blue’ initiative. They modelled three policy approaches – all under discussion at the UN talks – including a global ban on unnecessary single-use plastics. Shockingly, the implementation of all three approaches would still allow plastic consumption to grow by a quarter by 2050. Nonetheless, the authors stated that with the right binding and enforceable interventions and economic incentives, plastic pollution is solvable.
'I call on countries to look beyond waste and turn off the tap on plastic.' U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, via Twitter 1:16 PM · 2nd December, 2022
How to Get Involved?
Encourage your company to join the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty:
Send an email to world leaders to support the treaty:
Consider alternatives to single use plastic products: