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Countries set two-year deadline for international treaty on plastic pollution 'epidemic'

Representatives of 175 countries have agreed to work together to produce a global treaty to restrict plastics, as emissions from fossil-based plastics surpass air travel and the world’s waterways become inundated with plastic waste.

“Supporters have said that a global plastics treaty would be the most important environmental accord since the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change,” writes the New York Times, adding that negotiators are in the first of many rounds of talks to finalize the details of the treaty, with a target of sealing a deal by 2024.

The legally-binding document is mandated to address the full life cycle of plastics, from production and disposal to recycling and reuse. In a global first, the agreement to proceed on a treaty—reached during a week-long meeting of the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA-5) in Nairobi—also “formally recognized the importance of waste pickers in the plastics economy.”

The global treaty-to-be would also confront the devastating problem of microplastics, now ubiquitous in every environment on Earth, as well as the need to provide technical and financial assistance to developing nations that may struggle to cut their plastic habit.

“Plastic pollution has grown into an epidemic. With today’s resolution we are officially on track for a cure,” said UNEA-5 President Espen Barth Eide, in a United Nations Environmental Programme media release.

“Plastic production soared from two million tonnes in 1950 to 348 million tonnes in 2017, become a global industry valued at US$522.6 billion, and it is expected to double by 2040,” the release stated. “The impacts of plastic production and pollution on the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature loss, and pollution are a catastrophe in the making.”

Citing a 2019 study in the journal Nature Climate Change, the Times notes that fossil-based plastics “caused 4.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2015,” or “more than all the world’s airplanes combined.”

While American delegates successfully lobbied to have an explicit reference to toxic chemicals in plastics removed from the resolution titled, “End Plastic Pollution: Towards an internationally legally binding instrument,” it did retain mention of plastic’s detrimental effect on public health and the environment. That focus is critical, said Tadesse Amera, an environmental researcher based in Ethiopia and co-chair of the International Pollutants Elimination Network.

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“When we talk about plastics, we’re really talking about chemicals and carbon,” he said.

Environmental Defence Canada welcomed the agreement as “a welcome seed of hope in a world in crisis.” Plastic pollution “will soon reach a catastrophic scale,” the Toronto-based advocacy group wrote, pointing to the speedy timeline and fact that the treaty will be legally-binding.

Accolades also came from what environmental website edie.net calls the “circular economy space.” Praising “a landmark decision by UN member states,” Richard Slater, chief R&D officer for Unilever, said, “tackling pollution is not only the right thing to do; it’s a catalyst for innovation and reflects what our consumers want—less plastic waste.”

London-based sustainable packaging juggernaut DS Smith also praised the agreement. Touting his company’s pledge “to replace more than one billion pieces of problem plastic with fully recyclable, fibre-based packaging solutions by 2025,” DS’s head of sustainability, Wouter van Tol, urged business and governments not to wait for the treaty, but to “scale up their actions now.”

The fact that a global treaty is two years away “does not grant any stakeholder a two-year pause,” said UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen.

Stressing what is already possible, even without a treaty, Andersen confirmed that “in parallel to negotiations over an international binding agreement, UNEP will work with any willing government and business across the value chain to shift away from single-use plastics, as well as to mobilize private finance and remove barriers to investments in research and in a new circular economy.”

The industry-led Alliance to End Plastic Waste stressed the post-production components of the future treaty, with VP of corporate and public affairs Allison Lim saying the alliance (whose members include ExxonMobil, Shell, Dow, and Formosa Plastics) “welcomes” the progress made and “looks forward to an inclusive approach that takes into consideration local and national needs and capacities and promotes cooperation among local communities, the informal sector, municipalities, civil society, and the private sector.”

“We stand ready to contribute to the development of the instrument, based on our collective experience and expertise,” Lim added.

(That “expertise” now includes the failure of the Alliance’s much-ballyhooed Renew Oceans project, in 2021, less than two years after Dow Inc. CEO Jim Fitterling declared it “one of the best projects we’ve got.”)

As the petrochemical plastics industrial complex seeks to repackage itself as a savior devoted to keeping oceans free of plastic bottles—even as it continues to shovel billions into bottle production—a Dutch civil servant has produced a report for the Plastic Soup Foundation which links some of the countless millions of “nurdles” (tiny plastic pellets produced as the raw material for plastic products) found throughout the Westerschelde estuary in the Netherlands to leakage from UK sewage treatment plants. 

In the wake of the report, Plastic Soup Foundation says it will be joining forces with ClientEarth and 12 other NGOs to petition the Flemish government to withdraw the permit it granted to British petrochemical giant INEOS to build a plastic plant in Antwerp.

Elsewhere, citing “the growing mobilizations of citizens and nations taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis predicts that Shell’s multi-billion-dollar petrochemical complex nearing completion in Monaca, Pennsylvania “will be the last petrochemical complex for the foreseeable future.”

Designed to produce 1.6 million tonnes of plastic resins per year, the Shell plant will soon join the still-growing global fleet of cracker plants that are producing plastic, including more than 30 in the United States alone.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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According to a 2019 study in the journal Nature Climate Change, fossil-based plastics 'caused 4.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2015,' or 'more than all the world’s airplanes combined.'

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