Fossil fuel plastic (that’s most plastic by the way) is everywhere: hospitals, schools, supermarkets, homes, computers, phones, appliances, and more. It’s versatile, cheap, and durable — and it’s led to innovation in everything from medicine to aerospace.

The problem with plastic is that it’s actually not nearly as low cost once you start taking into account its catastrophic effects on human health, the economy, and the environment. 

What’s more, we’re producing it at break-neck speed. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the world currently produces a staggering 430 million metric tons of new plastics every year and this is forecast to increase a whopping 70% by 2040. 

Can’t we just recycle it? The short answer is: no. 

While recycling is important, it’s no silver bullet. Just 9% of the plastic ever produced has been recycled with another 19% incinerated; 50% ending up in landfill; and 22% evading waste management systems entirely going into uncontrolled dumpsites, being burned in open pits or dropped into oceans, rivers, and lakes, especially in poorer countries, according to the OECD’s Global Plastics Outlook Database. We don’t need to tell you how bad this is for the environment and its wildlife — you’ve seen the turtles mistaking plastic bags for jellyfish and the heartbreaking photo of a seahorse grasping a discarded cotton swab.

In the words of author and Founder and President of Beyond Plastics, Judith Enck: "If the plastics industry is following the tobacco industry's playbook, it may never admit to the failure of plastics recycling."

The global plastic pollution crisis has not only a detrimental impact on the environment; it also fuels existing social inequalities. The plastic waste trade is big business and involves plastic being exported from wealthier countries (under the guise of “recycling”) to poorer countries that lack the resources to properly handle the waste. This practice is commonly referred to as “waste colonialism” and is a form of environmental racism as it disproportionately affects marginalized communities.

What’s more, plastic pollution is just the tip of the iceberg. Plastic is deadly at all stages of its life cycle: from the extraction of the fossil fuels used to manufacture it, to its use in our everyday lives, and finally, its disposal. 

“This threat is practically impossible to avoid,” says Dr. Marcus Gover, who leads plastics research at Minderoo Foundation.

Nearly every piece of plastic started its life as a fossil fuel and greenhouse gasses are emitted at each stage of its life cycle — which is estimated to be responsible for over 3% of global emissions. That’s more than the entire global aviation industry.

Not only is plastic exacerbating a climate emergency that has already killed two million people, it’s poisoning everyone too. 

Up-stream, living near fossil fuel extraction sites has been associated with a wide range of health risks, including some cancers, cardiovascular disease, immunodeficiencies, and more. The transport of fossil fuels to refineries also carries health risks such as explosions and spills as well as chronic health issues and cancer

Then, the areas near the petrochemical plants that manufacture plastic are known as “sacrifice zones” because living there is associated with a range of health hazards from childhood asthma to blood cancer. The workers in those petrochemical plants face particularly severe health risks, including black lung, which is about as bad as it sounds. 

What’s more, recent research has demonstrated that harmful chemicals in plastic leach (the technical term for a form of leakage). Imagine the world’s plastic is like a giant coffee percolator. The coffee grounds inside are 4,200 chemicals considered "of concern", dripping through the filter drop by drop. "This toxic cocktail ends up in our bodies, where it does unimaginable damage to our health," adds Dr. Gover.


So how do you even begin to tackle such a huge, global, pervasive problem? Enter the Global Plastics Treaty, an international legally binding agreement that could turn off the plastics tap and end the age of plastic once and for all. Here's what you need to know. 

Why do we need a treaty?

Plastic is out of control. It's in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, our weather, and even in us. It’s generating emissions we simply can’t afford, fuelling social inequality, poisoning people, and wrecking the environment. 

The world has an opportunity to forge an ambitious Global Plastics Treaty – a solution that can match the scale of this global crisis.

Remind me: what’s a treaty?

Treaties are formal agreements between nations that are legally binding. These agreements can be between two nations (known as bilateral) or among several nations (known as multilateral). Once ratified by the parties involved, treaties become part of international law.

Give me some examples. 

One well known treaty is the Paris Agreement, an international treaty on climate change.  

Then you’ve got the Treaty of Versailles, a peace treaty that was signed during World War 1 that set out the conditions of peace between Germany and most of the Allied Powers.

Another example is the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, which aims to reduce the use and production of fossil fuels, calls for an equitable plan for phasing out existing fossil fuel production, and a just transition to renewable energy.

What’s the deal with the Global Plastics Treaty?

In March 2022, the UN Environment Assembly adopted a historic resolution to create a Global Plastics Treaty to address plastic pollution. 

The treaty aims to promote circular economies and tackle the entire life cycle of plastic.

Of course, like all treaties, it could have its loopholes. That’s why it’s important that it addresses three core areas: 

1. The reduction of virgin (as in, new) fossil fuel-based plastic production.
2. The removal of harmful chemicals from plastics.
3. The creation of a scientific advisory body to guide the treaty’s implementation and adaptation.

Who’s got behind it?

As of April 2024, the Global Plastics Treaty has received support from 175 nation states.

In 2023 an open letter was issued by Greenpeace USA urging US President Joe Biden’s administration to support the treaty and take steps to protect the planet from plastic pollution — but they’ve set to officially endorse the treaty. 

The treaty has also gotten support from the likes of World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the American Chemistry Council, Plastics Europe, the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty, the International Alliance of Waste Pickers (IAW), Indigenous Peoples, and trade unions

What are the roadblocks?

The fourth round of negotiations for the Global Plastics Treaty, known as the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-4), will begin on April 23 and continue through April 29 in Canada. The fifth and final session (INC-5) is scheduled to take place from November 25 to December 1 in Busan, Republic of Korea. 

The aim is to finish negotiations for the treaty by the end of this year — but they’re up against some powerful forces. 

The reality is that 99% of plastic is made from fossil fuels — and Big Oil is making sure we produce more and more plastic each year. 

As Judith Enck puts it: “Plastics is the Plan B for the fossil fuel industry.”

At the end of 2022, Shell, for example, opened a petrochemical complex the size of 300 football fields in Pennsylvania while China has built so many plastics factories in the past five years that it’s on pace to add as much capacity as currently exists in Europe, Japan, and Korea combined.

According to the environmental group Greenpeace, lobbyists for the “major fossil fuel companies were out in force” at the first negotiating session.

What can I do to help?

During the treaty negotiations in April, Global Citizens must speak louder than big brands, Big Oil, and the politicians who pander to them. Take action now by sharing why you think we need a robust Global Plastics Treaty. We’ll deliver your messages directly into the hands of negotiators at the next INC meeting.

Global Citizen Explains

Defend the Planet

Plastics are the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Plan B. This Treaty Aims to Stop Them in Their Tracks

By Tess Lowery  and  Fadeke Banjo