Four reasons to be hopeful about the planned global plastics treaty

Is this the beginning or the end of plastic pollution? A global treaty proposal is a challenge to us to dream. We should be optimistic because of this.

175 states endorsed a landmark resolution that has triggered negotiations for a first-ever treaty to end plastic pollution. It is expected to be completed before 2024.

This agreement was possible because growing public support for actionAs well as shrinking opposition to the chemical and other industry. There is also increasing scientific evidence that plastic pollution is accumulating in soils and in food, as well as in the ocean.

What will the treaty accomplish? Many experts, including myself, favor a plastics treaty that follows a similar process as the one in place for the 1987 Montreal protocolThis treaty eliminated ozone-eating chemical. This would ban certain types or plastics, such as single-use plastics, and other uses such as disposable packaging. Countries would meet regularly to update the list and agree on a date when each ban would take effect.

However, that is not what the resolution proposes. It envisions a treaty similar to the 2015 Paris agreementThe climate change issue, which focuses on greenhouse gas emissions. It establishes basic goals and allows states to create their own plans to prevent, reduce and eliminate plastic pollution.

These national action plans could be hampered by lobbying from the petrochemical and other industries. States would need to prove that they have stopped using certain plastics if the plastics treaty follows the Montreal protocol.

However, negotiating countries should follow the resolution’s guidance. The eventual treaty will still likely to be more specific about the obligations states have to reduce plastic pollution than the vaguely-worded Paris agreement for greenhouse gas emissions. This gives reason to be optimistic for four reasons.


1. Clear standards and objectives

The resolution has a clear goal for the treaty: To prevent, reduce, and eliminate plastic pollution. This is much harder to obfuscate than the Paris agreement’s aim of ensuring that the global average temperature does not rise 2C above pre-industrial levels.

The resolution directs all states to adopt sound waste management policies. This issue has been difficult for all countries. The UK exports waste that should be recycled to landfill sites abroad.

It is useful to identify the processes states must address, since it makes it easier to track their progress when everyone is asked to do the same thing. It’s harder under the Paris agreement to compare, for example, cuts to emissions from changes in public transport systems in one country with those from changes in the energy efficiency of appliances in another.

Image by Sigmund

2. Plastic product life cycle

The resolution obliges states to regulate plastic at each stage in a product’s life cycle. This is a far more advanced approach than the Paris agreement’s, which does not mention products or processes that cause greenhouse gas emissions (such fossil fuels) and leaves the states free to decide how to reduce their emissions.

States will adopt regulations under the plastics resolution that require manufacturers to design plastic products that are recyclable, remade, or reuseable. States will need to plan for the disposal of products after consumers have ceased using them. Future products such as mobile phones or laptops will need to have the ability to be repaired more easily.

Because plastic products are designed to be reused or recycled, future agreements will likely also include a commitment for single-use plastic products to be phased out. The Paris agreement does NOT contain an equivalent provision.

Image: Eirik Solheim

3. Existing plastic pollution

There are no existing treaties that purport to reduce pollution. They tend to be focused on reducing future emissions. This resolution calls for states to work together to eliminate plastics from the ocean. They can take action in their own territories or create an international organization that can oversee the elimination of plastics.

Image: Hamsterfreund

4. Knowledge

No one sector can solve the problem given the prevalence of plastic products and their pollution. The resolution invites a variety of people and organizations to share their knowledge on how to prevent plastic from accumulating in the environment. This includes the scientific community, indigenous knowledge holders, and industry experts.

The Paris agreement also includes similar requests regarding adaptation to climate change. But the resolution for a plastics treaty takes this further by asking people to contribute to mitigating the problem with suggestions for policy relevant to each stage of a plastic product’s life cycle.

For example, treaty negotiators may be informed by scientists and indigenous scholars about the extent of plastic pollution in ecosystems. They might also be able to identify design principles for products. Industries might report on the challenges associated with producing new plastics, and how they can be reused. Local government officials may suggest ways to overcome the obstacles that prevent people from recycling.

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Will the treaty prove to be a success?

It’s difficult to say whether the treaty will lead to a substantial reduction in plastic pollution. But the resolution’s deference to national leadership need not undermine the treaty’s success. The resolution contains more proposals than the Paris agreement and is likely to support the implementation.

This is encouraging, considering the speed with which the international community has recognized this issue. While there is still much to be done, the resolution is a positive step in the right direction.

Elizabeth Kirk is a professor of international environment law at the University of Lincoln

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article

Main image: Cristian Palmer

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