The World Just Vowed to Solve the Global Plastic Problem—Will It Work?

A legally-binding United Nations treaty aims to address the global plastic crisis by 2024.
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Image: SIMON MAINA/AFP via Getty Images

On Wednesday, 175 United Nations agreed to begin writing a legally-binding treaty to address the global plastic pollution crisis by 2024. 

Decided this week at the biannual session of the United Nations Environment Assembly—the highest-level global environmental decision-making body—in Nairobi, Kenya, the agreement establishes an aim to create a negotiating committee that will spend the next two years developing an instrument on plastic pollution. Though the terms of the agreement are relatively open-ended, the resolution points toward addressing pollution across all stages of the plastic life cycle, including production, consumption, and in marine ecosystems at end-of-life. 

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“Against the backdrop of geopolitical turmoil, the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) shows multilateral cooperation at its best,” Espen Barth Eide, the president of this year’s UNEA and Norway’s minister for climate and the environment said in a press release Wednesday. “Plastic pollution has grown into an epidemic. With today’s resolution we are officially on track for a cure.”

Plastic is environmentally damaging across all stages of its life cycle: Its creation involves the use of use a number of hazardous chemicals—including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene, carcinogens—that then end up in air and water supplies, emitting planet-warming gasses along the way. At the end of their life, they end up in soils, waterways, and marine ecosystems, harming animals that consume them, including humans. Last year, microplastics were located in the placentas of unborn human babies for the first time.

The resolution heeds calls that hundreds of civil society groups have been making for months. In December, a coalition of environmental and social advocacy organizations, trade unions, and Indigenous Peoples issued a public call to action to the United Nations urging it to establish the global instrument it has now committed to establishing. Similar coalitions of businesses and scientists have formed over the years to push for the same thing. 

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One of those groups was the Center for International Environmental Law, an environmental law firm at which environmentalist Jane Patton has been managing a plastics and petrochemical campaign and organizing for the creation of the UN resolution. A day off negotiations in Nairobi, Patton is thrilled to see an agreement struck. 

“I think we've got a good resolution,” she said. “We've got all of the key pieces that we needed to include in order to actually address this problem.” 

Patton was among activists who helped formalize the call to UNEA to write the treaty in December, though she says civil society has been coalescing around the issue since 2017, at UNEA’s third session, and it’s been on the Assembly’s agenda since the first session, in 2014.

The agreement has been compared to the 2015 Paris Accords—in which 196 countries agreed to a set of legally-binding goals to limit global warming that many are no longer on track to meet. But Patton is cautiously optimistic that nations will be more rigorous in upholding a plastics treaty. That’s where the importance of legally-binding commitments comes in: Though some elements of the treaty will likely be voluntary, setting mandatory ones will be crucial in holding nations to account, she says. 

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“If the targets and goals and commitments are not binding, they're probably not going to be met,” Patton told Motherboard. “How that's going to play out is yet to be seen. And because we still have five or six or even seven rounds of negotiation around what the treaty will look like,  it's hard to predict that right now.” 

Alongside other civil society groups, Patton plans to push for legally-binding measures—which will be particularly vital in the face of the petrochemical industry’s recent efforts to offload surplus natural gas from the fracking boom by selling it to the plastics industry. And while the UN cannot regulate corporations—it will be up to member states to do this nationally—Patton stresses that toxic waste and air pollution from plastic development constitute a huge part of their harms to society. A Louisiana resident, Patton is no stranger to the harms of the petrochemical industry: She lives just north of ‘cancer alley,’ where chemical facilities and oil and gas refineries line the Mississippi River. Some of them make plastic, or ingredients for it; all of them have contributed to some of the most polluted air in the country. 

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“Plastic pollution is much broader of an issue than just the physical manifestation of plastics in the water, on the land,” Patton said. “You’d be amazed how many countries really want to keep the conversation relegated to physical plastic polymers that are loose in the environment.”

“We just want to keep the treaty focus broader than that,” she said. 

Julie Teel Simmons, senior attorney with the oceans program at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental non-profit that joined CIEL in urging the UN to draft the treaty, hopes to see similar focus on “turning off the tap” on plastic production, rather than focusing entirely on trash in waterways. Her organization is currently working to halt permits for new petrochemical facilities that are expected to grow the global plastic supply by 40 per cent over the next ten years.

Simmons says the petrochemical industry has worked hard to divert attention away from these impacts at the front of the supply chain, instead pushing attention toward the waste stream created at the end of it. 

“They do not want the public making that connection between oil and gas extraction and climate impacts and plastic,” Simmons said. “We need to change the discourse and shed light on the fact that we're really wasting precious fossil fuels to make so much throwaway plastic.”  

She plans to keep this at the fore over the next two years as negotiations around the treaty proceed. 

“Now the real work begins,” she said. “We have to really ride [our governments] to translate this amazing commitment into action and not let the treaty get watered down.”