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A plastic bottle floating on the ocean surface.

Plastic waste treaty: expert Q&A on the promise of a global agreement to reduce pollution

The flow of plastic entering the ocean is expected to double by 2040. To prevent this tsunami of difficult-to-decompose waste, experts have proposed a global treaty which could oblige all nations to reduce how much plastic they produce and emit to the environment.

At a recent meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) in Nairobi, Kenya, ministers and representatives from 173 countries agreed on the terms for negotiating such a treaty over the next two years.

Is this the turning point for plastic pollution the world needs? And how will it work? We asked Steve Fletcher, a professor of ocean policy and economy at the University of Portsmouth and an advisor to the UN Environment Prograamme on plastic.

What has actually been agreed in Nairobi?

The UNEA is a gathering of all United Nations member states to discuss and adopt policies for tackling global environmental problems. It is the highest environmental decision-making body in the world. On Wednesday March 2 2022, ministers and representatives from 173 countries formally adopted a resolution to start negotiations for a legally binding agreement to end plastic pollution.

A large model of a tap pouring plastic waste onto the ground is suspended in the air before a conference centre.
The three-day UNEA meeting brought countries together to discuss turning off the plastic tap. EPA-EFE/Daniel Irungu

Agreeing the mandate and focus of the negotiations is just the start. Before the end of 2024, the substance of the agreement will need to be thrashed out.

It’s currently unclear how ambitious the legally binding elements of the agreement will be. For example, will the agreement oblige countries to totally eliminate plastic pollution, and if so, by when and how?

The resolution mentions a mechanism for directing money to countries in poorer countries so that they can afford to implement the agreement. This might improve waste collection, build recycling plants or eliminate the open burning of plastic. Finance has been a major point of contention in negotiations for delivering the Paris agreement on climate change.

How far will the agreement shift the world towards a truly circular economy for plastic, in which the value of plastic is maintained from production through to the manufacturing of products, their use, re-use, recycling and disposal? If plastic waste is given intrinsic value, it should remove the logic which allows pollution to happen.

The resolution stresses the importance of engaging a broad range of people and groups in developing the agreement, which will be important given the range of interests involved in the plastics sector and the widespread support needed to develop an effective global agreement.

What will be the specific aims of this treaty?

The treaty will aim to prevent plastic becoming pollution in the first place by setting rules to eliminate the use of unnecessary plastic, which could include measures to reduce excessive plastic packaging, among other things, and replace it with more sustainable alternatives. This is more ambitious than some observers had predicted at the outset of the recent UNEA meeting, as some worried the scope of the treaty would end at improving the management of waste plastic (such as through better collection and sorting).

Countries have different waste management systems, so the agreement is likely to require each one to produce its own national action plan to show how it intends to achieve the goals of the agreement, although the legal status of these plans is unclear from the resolution.

The resolution also includes options for public campaigns to reduce plastic pollution, support for scientific research and opportunities to share knowledge between countries. It emphasises that the agreement should be developed in collaboration with civil society organisations, indigenous communities, and businesses. Only this way, it is argued, can a holistic approach to eliminating plastic pollution emerge.

A young boy bends over to pick up litter from a plastic-strewn landscape.
Plastic pollution blights the lives of the world’s poorest people. Tinnakorn Jorruang/Shutterstock

How will the treaty be implemented?

This is the tricky part. Other multilateral environmental agreements have struggled to achieve their goals as a result of poor enforcement.

A plastics agreement is likely to be enforced through the UN legal system, as with any other legally binding global agreements. Countries breaching the terms of any global agreement face legal and financial sanctions. Disciplinary action is used sparingly, however, with countries more likely to be offered support in delivering the treaty.

What approach the final agreement includes will be decided during discussions over the next 21 months.

What are some of the biggest obstacles to achieving the treaty’s aims?

The treaty seeks nothing more than a complete transformation in our relationship with plastics.

That will require a fundamental shift in how plastics are produced, used and disposed of. The eventual goal will be move from a linear system, in which plastics are made, used and then thrown away, to a circular system in which plastic becomes a valuable resource which it makes sense to conserve.

This will challenge vested interests, particularly the oil and gas industry (most plastics derive from fossil fuels) and plastic manufacturers, and will require major innovations in material science, product design, green chemistry, waste and recycling management, product labelling and public behaviour. Every country is faced with unique circumstances and challenges, but the global agreement should provide a framework capable of supporting this transition.

A sheet of plastic packaging stretched on a mechanical roller in a factory.
Expect stiff resistance from plastic producers and other powerful businesses. Gumpanat/Shutterstock

What lessons can negotiators draw from the success and failures of other environmental treaties?

It is always difficult to draw lessons from different agreements, but let’s try. Over the last 30 years, the provisions of the 1989 Montreal protocol have managed to shrink the hole in the ozone layer. The protocol’s success is often attributed to national targets for progressively reducing the production and use of ozone-depleting substances in refrigerators and aerosols, for instance. This structured approach might be a useful template for reducing plastic production over time.

An alternative model is the Paris agreement of 2015, which requires countries to specify their own nationally determined contributions to reducing total greenhouse gas emissions, in line with a goal of limiting average global temperature rise to no more than 2°C (and ideally, 1.5°C) above pre-industrial levels. This approach has had limited success, as COP26 demonstrated. Few countries have adopted actions in line with the global target.

Given the clear need for globally coordinated action to tackle the plastics crisis, the agreement may need to borrow more from the prescriptive actions of the ozone-saving Montreal protocol to achieve its targets.

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