Plastic pollution treaty: UN negotiations promising but still uncertain
One of the most unusual phenomena of the Anthropocene is a geological formation known as a plastiglomerate.
It is generated when the once-molten remains of discarded plastic fuse with naturally occurring sediment. The first reported discovery of such a material occurred in 2006 on the coast of Hawaii. Resembling an alien lifeform, one can observe plastic filaments and other waste protruding like tumors from its craggy surface.
The plastiglomerate is a troubling milestone in the story of plastic and its devastating presence in the biosphere. This affordable, mass-produced miracle substance has become ubiquitous in the post-war era. The UN estimates that 400 million tonnes of plastic are produced yearly. At current growth rates, production will reach over 1 billion tonnes by 2050. Currently, there is no international agreement to manage the lifecycle of plastic from production to disposal. More than ever, it has become necessary as a matter of survival for our planet.
By 2040, we could see over 30 million tonnes of plastic waste enter our oceans yearly. The effects of plastic pollution on marine ecosystems are well-documented. Living organisms ingest it, mistaking it for food. Plastic secretes toxic chemicals, causing illness and disrupting food chains. Microplastics cause a host of issues of their own, including developmental disorders and immune systems deficiencies.
As you would have suspected, I am not just referring to marine life. Though human medical research is in its infancy, it is theorized that plastic is making us ill.
Microplastics–small particles shed from larger products–have been linked to cancer, heart disease, stroke, and a host of other health complications. What’s more, microplastics have been detected on virtually every part of the earth, in air, rain, snow, and soil. Based on research conducted in the US, the average person will ingest or inhale in excess of 74,000 microplastic particles every year. They may be the leaded petrol of our time, a silent killer responsible for millions of premature deaths worldwide.
There is a growing consensus in the international community that action must be taken to control the life cycle of plastics.
Over 160 UN member states have resolved to negotiate and implement a legally binding agreement on plastic pollution by the end of 2024. The first round of negotiations in Uruguay concluded in December 2022. Though nothing was set in stone, the Americans and Saudis indicated that they would push for a “chip in what you can” approach, with parties setting their own targets for limiting production and recycling. Other states argued the treaty can and should be more ambitious, with mandatory targets that, one way or another, need to be achieved.
At this stage, it is still too early to know what the treaty will look like. Any consensus the parties reached was principled rather than practical. As the Paris climate negotiations showed, the devil is in the details, and the details are often a matter of fevered political scrimmage. At round two in May 2023, negotiating parties will decide if binding agreements should be reached by a simple majority vote or via consensus. A consensus vote will give smaller and developing nations more bargaining power against unreasonable targets; it could also potentially roadblock meaningful action and deliver middling results.
Moreover, the presence of leading plastic polluters like Coca-Cola and Unilever in these initial talks is troubling. Industry consultation is a part of good law-making, but governments must acknowledge the scale of greenwashing practiced by the petrochemical and plastics lobbies over the last forty years. In 2021, only up to 6% of plastic waste generated in the US was recycled. The problem is twofold: manufacturing virgin plastic is much cheaper; and the private sector has no obligation to account for the waste it produces.
A robust treaty, by necessity, must incorporate a framework for greatly expanding global recycling capacity. If recycling is a fiscal liability, then it must be shared among the public and the private sectors. Time and time again, the environment has been let down by market logic. A litany of failed private sector recycling programs tell us that this responsibility is too important to be left to its impersonal, black-and-white colouring of the world.
Governments will need to turn to more creative solutions, like a green jobs guarantee, for example, which has the potential to create jobs and stimulate global economic growth. The UN treaty can and should enable ambitious recycling targets through shared investment and funding. This approach would square with the UN’s concept of a just transition to a sustainable economy which avoids action at the expense of economic well being.
The treaty should also consider pooling global investment to address existing plastic contamination. Scientists have signaled there are promising answers right under our noses. For example, for a number of years we’ve known of naturally occurring bacteria which feed on plastic, and that this property can be scientifically exploited to degrade large quantities. Other researchers have designed underwater magnetic coils which attract microplastics, allowing them to be safely drawn from the environment. As the saying goes, where there is a will, there’s a way – but the will is sorely lacking money.
We must remember that plastic, though predating modern industrial society, is inexorably tied to its needs. The first commercially successful plastic, Bakelite, took off in the 1930s because it was cheap and possessed virtually endless uses. It was the industry that began using it for commercial applications. Now, we take it for granted that our food comes packaged in it; that our appliances are made from it; that its proliferation is the price we pay for convenience.
Convenient it may be, a fundamental tenet of sustainability is the notion that we must stop worshiping at the altar of convenience. One hopes that the international community will recognise this too and seize this opportunity to phase out plastic once and for all. If we fail, the plastiglomerate may be remembered as something more tragic and indicting than just a curious aberration in the history of our species.
George Yankovich is a final-year student at the University of Adelaide studying Law and International Relations. He is currently a Publications Editor for Young Australians in International Affairs and is a member of the US Consul-General's Youth Advisory Council. George is interested in the ethics around emerging technologies, particularly AI and autonomous weapons, which he is currently researching as part of Adelaide Law School's legal research internship program.