A new global plastics treaty is coming for your bags and bottles

A new global plastics treaty is coming for your bags and bottles

Plastics to a pile of garbage.

Plastics to a pile of garbage.
Photo: justin sullivan (Getty Images)

The world is suffocating plastic trash canand the UN wants to do something about it.

A one week meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) on Plastic Pollution in Punta del Este, Uruguay, ended last Friday (December 2). This was a first formal step towards a legally binding international treaty to address the global problem of plastics. Sso much a pact would be to be the most important environmental treaty in years, on par with the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

The INC will spend the next two years negotiating the binding nature of the regulations. While most of the 1,800 participants in Uruguay ostensibly support ending plastic pollution as a baseline, competing motives push factions in different directions. Intransigent countries and activists are pushing for outright bans on “problematic plastics” and certain chemicals, as well as international regulations and strict production control.

Plastics industry coalitions—which include the world’s largest plastic producers, such as Nestlé and Unilever– call for a focus on recycling and global targets defined by national priorities.

How would an international plastics treaty work?

The details of the treaty will have to be negotiated over the next few years. Jhe High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution, made up of 45 countries, calls for restricting single-use plastics in packaging and consumer goods. They account for half of the plastic waste produced today, so a restriction would be enormous reducing pollution, as well as forcing a transformation for consumers and businesses produce their possessions – in the way they drink bottled water, order takeout, or buy cleaning supplies and cosmetics.

An international standard for production monitoring would also allow try to ensure that the plastics are chemically safe, truly recyclable and durable enough to be reused. Of the approximately 10,000 chemicals used in the production of plastics, more than 2,400 were found to be harmful, causing a range of health problems ranging from asthma to infertility. Recycling is currently not viable for most plastics, but better production tracking could change that.

Until now recycling has been critical to get little impact on the volume of plastic pollution. Only 5% of plastics in the United States were recycled in 2021, up from 9.5% in 2014. And letting countries set their national priorities can be a blur. In the United States, certain commercial groups, among which are oil giants such as Chevron and ExxonMobil, should benefit from the continued use of their fossil fuels to make plastic. They have spent millions lobbying against government action against plastic pollution, which could result in weaker national regulations in the global effort against plastic.

So far, the United States, Saudi Arabia and the plastics industry are support the model used for the Paris climate agreement, which lets countries determine their own national action plans, rather than being bound by common regulations.

For activists, the specter of the Paris climate accord is less a blueprint for international treaties than a cautionary tale. The Paris Agreement relies on countries developing their own national policies for to avoid 2 degrees Celsius from warming up above pre-industrial levelsand preferably avoiding 1.5 degrees. The world has missed this target. Current national policies do notwould cause a 2.8-diploma temperature rise at the turn of the century. Ithe implementation of the most recent commitments just push it down from 0.2 to 0.4 degrees.

“We haven’t really seen much success coming out of the Paris Agreement,” said Chris Dixon, oceans campaign manager at the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency. told Bloomberg. “So why on earth would we try to negotiate a new convention that’s modeled after something that was essentially a failure?”

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