The most ambitious global treaty targeting plastic pollution was adopted by 175 countries on Wednesday at an annual conference held by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). 

The treaty aims to tackle the entire life-cycle of plastic, with the primary goal of developing circular economies that break the reign of single-use plastics. Countries will now spend the next two years negotiating the specifics of the treaty and how it will be enforced.  

“Today marks a triumph by planet earth over single-use plastics," said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP. "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.” 

People around the world have tackled the global crisis of plastic pollution from hundreds of different angles over the past decade.

Various towns, cities, and countries have enacted restrictions on different types of plastic. Recycling facilities have been updated. Companies have reduced their use of plastic, developed bio-plastics, and invested in alternatives. Communities have staged clean-up efforts to remove plastic waste from coastlines, rivers, and landscapes. Technologies have been invented to trap microplastics and massive machines have been mobilized to clear away ocean plastic. 

But the problem keeps getting worse. That’s because these efforts have been fragmented. Without global coordination, the plastic industry will continue to evolve and expand, plastic consumption will become more common and diffuse, and plastic pollution will become more widespread, contaminating the farthest reaches of the planet. In fact, plastic production is expected to increase 40% in the decade ahead

That was the backdrop of the UNEP conference as countries sought to create a grand solution to the crisis of plastic pollution. 

The event, attended by representatives from more than 170 countries, could transform the world’s relationship to plastic. And the leading treaty proposal strikes at the very heart of the plastic industry. 

3 Key Facts About Plastic Pollution

  • A truckload of plastic is dumped into the the ocean every minute of every day, and plastic production is expected to increase 40% in the next decade.
  • Single-use plastics are already illegal, partially banned, or taxed in some parts of the world, with Kenya having one of the strictest laws on the books.
  • Peru and Rwanda have proposed the first-ever global treaty tackling plastic pollution, based on the Paris climate agreement, through which countries around the world would adopt action plans and set targets to end the plastic crisis once and for all.

What Is the Global Plastic Pollution Treaty?  

Put forward by Peru and Rwanda, with support from 27 countries and more than 750 civil society groups, the treaty addresses the entire life-cycle of plastic, covering the extraction of fossil fuels, the design of plastics, and their production, consumption, and associated waste management. The overarching goal of the proposal is to move toward circular economies that prioritize reusable materials and minimize waste.

The proposal aims for more than a series of recommendations, like the Paris climate agreement. On the issue of plastic, the negotiators are aiming for legally binding mechanisms to ensure that all countries work together toward a solution and can be held accountable. Under this kind of framework, a country would have to enforce new standards within industries that use plastic and develop systems for effective waste management. 

But recognizing the huge resource disparities that exist around the world, the proposal also calls for global financing to support developing countries in a shift away from plastic, much as the Paris climate agreement calls for justice-oriented climate financing.  

Further, a scientific advisory committee would be established to ensure all countries have access to best practices so that time and money aren’t spent on dead ends, according to the Conversation

Another, weaker proposal put forward by Japan aimed to limit the scope of national cooperation to just waste management, but early reports confirmed that the Peru-Rwanda treaty had all the momentum and will be adopted for future negotiation and ratification. 

"I have complete faith that once endorsed by this assembly we will have something truly historic on our hands," Inger Andersen, the Executive Director of UNEP, told delegates on Monday.

"We all know that an agreement will only count if it is legally binding,” he said. “If it adopts a full lifecycle approach, stretching from extraction to production to waste."

A Truly Global Problem

The COVID-19 pandemic is generating mass amounts of medical waste, including disposable masks made with plastic microfibers. Inventors and entrepreneurs from Mexico, India, and the UK are aiming to solve the PPE waste problem threatening our environment. Image: Flickr/Marco Verch

The COVID-19 pandemic derailed the fragmented but accelerating momentum to limit plastic pollution. Suddenly, single-use plastic items became an essential component of public health management — masks, medical supplies, testing kits, and more. Since the pandemic began, plastic use has surged and led to widespread pollution in bodies of water. 

But even before the pandemic, the crisis was out of control. 

As of 2019, humanity had created 8.3 million metric tons of plastic, which is equal in weight to 1 billion elephants. 

In many ways, plastic is the engine of the modern consumerist-driven economy, with seemingly every product imaginable either containing plastic or being wrapped for sale in plastic. With little oversight, plastic producers have been churning out new types of plastic for years without making sure that municipalities have had the capacity to recycle them. As a result, roughly 91% of plastic that gets thrown away never gets recycled and instead goes to landfills and pollutes ecosystems. 

The effects of this lopsided arrangement are clear around the world, especially in marine environments. The ocean is teeming with plastic and causing severe harm to wildlife. Both big marine animals like whales, seals, and turtles and small animals like krill and coral are being injured, poisoned, and killed by plastic waste. 

Emaciated animals caught in nets have become grisly reminders of the toll plastic waste. 

“Plastics are threat multipliers,” Trisia Farrelly, an environmental anthropologist, wrote in the Conversation. “They can act together with other stressors, such as climate change and over-exploitation of marine resources, to cause far greater damage than if they occurred in isolation.”

It’s not just unsuspecting marine creatures that are being harmed by plastic. Over time, plastics disintegrate into micro and nano particles that pervade the water we drink, the food we eat, and the air we breathe. The cumulative effects of ingesting so much plastic is largely unknown, but preliminary studies have shown that it can gather throughout the body, and that even fetuses have been found with microplastic contamination

Beyond the health consequences, the global reliance on plastics also contributes to the climate crisis. Plastic is made from fossil fuels, the very same fossil fuels that are warming the atmosphere and setting in motion catastrophic global events. By 2050, it’s estimated that 20% of fossil fuels will go toward the production of plastics. 

Moving beyond fossil fuels necessarily means phasing them out in all but only the most essential instances. Plastic, while necessary in some contexts, is largely a material of convenience and can be phased out without major repercussions.

A New Model

The End of Trash - Circular Economy Solutions: A circular economy s based on designing waste and pollution out of the system, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems. Nominated in the environment stories category.
The End of Trash - Circular Economy Solutions: A circular economy s based on designing waste and pollution out of the system, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems. Nominated in the environment stories category.
Image: © Luca Locatelli, for National Geographic

Now that the Peru-Rwanda proposal received broad support, it will undergo a phase of negotiation that could last two years. During this process, countries will hash out details of the treaty to ensure that all participating members agree to its terms. 

The plastic industry has already launched a major lobbying effort to dilute and even squash the treaty, similar to efforts they’ve waged in towns, cities, and countries around the world. 

But the coalition against plastic pollution has grown so broad in recent years that it may manage to overcome this resistance and enact the most ambitious plastic management program in world history. 

Getting to the finish line will require support from people around the world calling on their legislators to back the proposal in its most ambitious form. 

“Let it be clear that the INC’s mandate does not grant any stakeholder a two-year pause," Andersen said. "In parallel to negotiations over an international binding agreement, UNEP will work with any willing government and business across the value chain to shift away from single-use plastics, as well as to mobilise private finance and remove barriers to investments in research and in a new circular economy."

Global Citizen Explains

Defend the Planet

First-Ever Global Plastic Pollution Treaty: What Is It and Why Is It Important?

By Joe McCarthy