The planet desperately needs this UN plastic treaty

This week in Uruguay, scientists, environmentalists and government officials – and of course lobbyists – gather to start negotiations for a UN treaty on plastics. The talks are only just beginning, so we don’t know how they will play out, but some of the items on the table include production restrictions and the phasing out of particularly problematic chemical components. A draft resolution published in March set the tone, acknowledging that “high and rapidly increasing plastic pollution is a serious environmental problem at a global level, negatively affecting the environmental, social and economic dimensions of sustainable development”.

Which is a bureaucratic way of expressing this plastic pollution – both macroplastic like bags and bottles and microplastics like fibers in synthetic clothing – is a planetary catastrophe of the highest order that is growing exponentially. Humanity currently produces a trillion pounds of plastic a year, and that will double by 2045. Only 9 percent of all plastic ever produced has been recycled — and currently the United States recycles just 5 percent of its plastic waste. The rest is either landfilled, incinerated, or escapes into the environment. Wealthy nations also have a nasty habit of exporting their plastic waste to thriving economies, where the stuff is often burned in open pits, poisoning surrounding communities. Plastics are also a major contributor to CO2 emissions – after all, they are made from fossil fuels.

Environmentalists and scientists who study pollution agree that the plastic problem cannot be solved by increasing recycling or by creating giant tubes to collect garbage floating in the sea, but by massively reducing its production. But while we don’t know what will eventually make it into the treaty — negotiations are expected to last into 2024 — don’t expect plastic manufacturing to end in the way a peace treaty would end a war. Instead, it could push humanity to address its debilitating dependency on polymers, for example by targeting single-use plastics. “We won’t have a world without plastic – that’s not anytime soon,” says Deonie Allen, a plastics scientist at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. “As we currently use it, the is a choice we can make today.”

Think of the unchecked flow of plastic into the environment as electricity. If you want to troubleshoot the issue downstream, remove the waste that is already in the environment, as is the case with a beach cleanup. Continue upstream— literally — they could use barges to intercept plastic before it reaches the ocean. But the the furthest can go upstream does not even produce the plastic.

For this reason, the contract must contain a limit on plastic production, an international team of scientists argued in the journal Science after publication of the draft decision. “We’re really going to push for mandatory and mandatory production caps,” says Jane Patton, campaign manager for plastics and petrochemicals at the Center for International Environmental Law, who is attending the talks. “We will push for changes in the way plastics are manufactured to eliminate toxic chemicals from production and the supply chain.”

Indeed, the draft resolution calls for addressing the “full life cycle” of plastic, from manufacture to disposal. But time will tell how successful negotiators will actually be when it comes to agreeing on a cap. Ideally, they will agree on an internationally binding limit, but it is also possible that individual countries will end up making their own commitments.

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