A global plastics treaty is nearly within our grasp

MEHDI FEDOUACH/ Getty
French scientist and member of the association “4P Shore & Seas” Edgar Dusacre shows microplastic waste collected on the Aquitaine coast on the beach of Contis, southwestern France, on August 17, 2020. 

Could 2022 be the year when world leaders finally act to break plastic pollution’s stranglehold on humanity and nature?  

The first test of the global community’s resolve will come next week, when representatives from national governments gather in Nairobi for the resumed fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly. Governments should seize this unprecedented opportunity to negotiate a UN treaty that addresses plastic pollution on a global scale. The success or failure of those negotiations — and of the treaty’s eventual implementation — will depend in large part on U.S. leadership, both at home and abroad. 

A coordinated global response to the plastic waste crisis would be a welcome development, and not a moment too soon. Since the mid-20th century, humanity has produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic. And the future trendlines, if we continue with business-as-usual, look deeply depressing. Right now, we’re on course to more than triple our global plastic production by 2050. All that additional plastic is projected to account for 20 percent of oil consumption in the coming years, along with around 10 to 13 percent of the carbon budget that we have left to use — that is, if we want any chance of keeping planetary warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the threshold that scientists say is necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.  

Meanwhile, plastic waste continues to pour into our oceans at a rate of roughly one garbage truck per minute. Within the next 30 years, our oceans could contain more plastic than fish, an astonishing outcome that would have dire implications for marine life, not to mention the billions of people who depend on that marine life to sustain their own lives and livelihoods. 

For the sake of people and the planet, we must act fast to reduce virgin plastic production, decouple plastic production from fossil fuels and keep the plastic we do need in our economy and out of nature. To date, we’ve seen some efforts to address this crisis, but by-and-large they’ve been too decentralized and ineffective to drive change at the necessary speed and scale. What we need is an international framework that aims to end the flow of plastic into nature by 2030, aligns with the best available science and holds governments and businesses to account. 

A global plastics treaty would create a set of common definitions and standards for action, which would enable governments and businesses to move beyond the current patchwork of disconnected solutions and instead focus their investments on scaling up innovations, infrastructures and skills that will drive transformational change. A treaty would also help facilitate a much-needed transition to a circular economy that minimizes plastic waste, efficiently utilizes the plastic that we can’t do without and maximizes and preserves the value of plastic at all stages of its life cycle, from the initial extraction of raw materials to product design, fabrication, use, as well as finally recovery and reuse. 

Over three-fourths of UN Member States have already signaled their support for a global plastics treaty, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently announced U.S. support for multilateral negotiations. Strong U.S. leadership remains crucial to shepherding a legally binding treaty to ratification. The private sector also must do its part — and herein lies a spot of bright news. Now more than ever, business leaders acknowledge the cost of rampant plastic pollution and are prepared to intervene, with more than 100 companies signing on in support of the treaty.  

The private sector’s support for a global treaty also reflects public opinion on this crucial issue. According to recent global polling, an average of nearly 90 percent of people across 28 countries believe a global plastics treaty is important to address our growing plastic pollution crisis.  

The future health of wildlife, ecosystems and natural resources, food safety and quality, human health and coastal tourism, the very stability of Earth’s climate — it’s all on the line. Fortunately, history is replete with examples of the world coming together to offer shared solutions to shared threats. The UN was created for just such a purpose, so it is altogether fitting that this month’s UN Environment Assembly be the launching point for our global response to the plastic waste crisis. And the U.S., which played such an indispensable role in the creation of the UN nearly a century ago, should once again lead the way.  

Erin Simon is the head of plastic waste and business at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Tags Antony Blinken Climate change Environment Erin Simon Global warming Plastic Plastic pollution Pollution UN

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