People collect plastic waste in East Java, Indonesia, in 2018.
People collect plastic waste in East Java, Indonesia, in 2018. Photo by JUNI KRISWANTO/AFP via Getty Images

The UN Is Finally, Maybe, Doing Something About Plastic Pollution

About 10 million tons of plastic waste are dumped into our oceans every year—the equivalent of a garbage truck of plastic every minute. A new UN treaty is trying to fight that.

The UN has just signed a landmark agreement to reduce plastic pollution, in what some are calling the most important international environmental deal since the 2015 Paris agreement that targeted climate change.

On Wednesday, marked by a gavel made from recycled plastics, representatives from 175 nations endorsed the agreement, which will act as the framework for discussions over the next two years. Worldwide, we produce 400 million tons of plastic a year, and that’s expected to double by 2040. If countries can stick to their commitments, it could lead to a massive reduction in single-use plastics, production levels, and ocean pollution.


That’s a big “if”—while a lot of groups are cautiously optimistic, just like the Paris agreement, there are loopholes that countries could exploit. 

Here’s what you need to know about the agreement. 

What did the 175 countries actually agree to? 

End plastic pollution: Towards an international legally binding instrument” is a series of loose resolutions promising to address the full life cycle of plastic products.

It creates an intergovernmental negotiating committee, which will spend the next two years hashing out exactly how to tackle the plastic problem. Resolutions called for promoting sustainably designed products and materials, environmentally sound waste management, and financial support for developing countries.

At the next UN Environment Assembly in 2024, the committee will finalize the agreement. 

“What we laid out was, in the easiest terms, a plan for a plan,” said Erin Simon, head of plastic waste and business at the World Wildlife Fund. But, she warned, “There could be plenty of time for countries to back off what they committed to.” 

What can we expect to see in the treaty? 

A lot could happen over the next two years. Right now, similar to the Paris agreement, the deal allows for countries to take voluntary approaches—meaning it will likely not be mandatory for them to meet their commitments. 

It also contains an open mandate that allows the intergovernmental negotiating committee to change the treaty before it’s signed, potentially watering it down. While the open mandate could present a potential loophole, Jane Patton, the plastics and petrochemicals campaign manager for the Center for International Law, said it allows the committee to improve the draft’s language, making issues like plastic’s toxicity to human health more explicit. 


“It’s about setting up a framework that countries feel empowered to take action on,” Simon said. “They are likely to take action if they have the opportunity to inform the process.”

What can possibly go wrong?

Just like with the Paris climate agreement, if the U.S. doesn’t uphold its end of the bargain, the rest of the world could follow suit. The U.S. is the largest plastic waste producer in the world, shipping off its unwanted garbage to developing nations.

Plastic policy can sometimes gain bipartisan support, however. Even well-known environmental curmudgeon Donald Trump signed the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act, designed to fight coastal plastic debris, into law in 2020. 

Fortunately, the fact that plastic pollution is so visible is speeding up efforts to address it. 

“It’s something a bit more tangible as a problem than climate, because you can’t see greenhouse gases in the air, but I can see plastic pollution in the streets outside my house,” Patton said. 

Are the worst culprits finally going to be held to account? 

We’ll see. Plastics are derived from fossil fuels and chemicals, and, unsurprisingly, oil and chemical industries have been less enthusiastic about the treaty.

Their strategy focuses on recycling, which diverts the conversation away from reducing plastic production and usage. With a recycling approach, consumers who lack access to proper recycling resources are held responsible for their plastic waste, while plastic producers can continue business as usual. 


Plus, if the resolution’s terms aren’t mandatory for governments, companies might not face meaningful restrictions, either.

Perhaps surprisingly, companies that have been ranked as the world’s top plastic polluters, including PepsiCo, Nestlé, and Coca-Cola, have joined with dozens of others in a pre-UNEA statement supporting the treaty, using snazzy buzzwords that called for “a holistic, coordinated international response,” a “circular economy for plastics,” and a “robust governance structure to ensure countries’ participation and compliance.” 

Although the global agreement doesn’t enforce plastics restrictions yet, some companies have already made sustainability pledges. Nestlé commits that 100 percent of packaging will be recyclable or reusable by 2025

It may sound like progress, but environmental experts are skeptical.

“Recycling doesn’t get to the root of the problems with plastic production,” said Jim Walsh, policy director at Food and Water Watch. “When you focus simply on issues of recycling and packaging management, you ignore all of the impacts of the petrochemical development and pollution that comes along with that.”

The companies’ support could be due in part to a growing anti-plastics movement over the past two years. A 2021 Ipsos poll of more than 20,000 people in 28 countries found that 88 percent of respondents believe a global plastics treaty is important and 85 percent want manufacturers and retailers to be held responsible for plastic packaging. Over 2 million people signed WWF’s petition for a global plastics agreement ahead of negotiations.


What’s so bad about plastic?

Plastic pollution is an environmental nightmare. Annually, reports estimate that between 9 to 11 million metric tons of plastic are tossed into oceans, the equivalent of dumping a garbage truck full of plastic every minute. Forty percent of plastic produced is single-use, and disturbingly, after over a hundred years of production, only 9 percent of plastics has ever been recycled.

Plastic garbage doesn’t really decompose—rather, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually becoming microplastics the size of sesame seeds. These synthetic crumbs act like magnets for surrounding chemical pollutants, attracting floating environmental contaminants and depositing them to unsuspecting hosts.

That’s a major problem for humans. Besides the health effects from eating the plastic itself, humans are getting exposed to a host of hormone disruptors, carcinogens, and pollutants in our food, water, salt, beer, and seafood dinners. These toxins lead to serious health issues, including cancer, birth defects, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, auto-immune conditions, neuro-degenerative diseases, and stroke. Fifth UN Environment Assembly President Espen Barth Eide told the committee on Monday his blood tests showed plastic compounds and chemicals in his body.

Plastics also fuel climate change. A 2021 report from environmental group Beyond Plastics found that plastic is currently slated to outpace coal’s greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. by 2030.


“The fact that that isn’t addressed right now in any of the global multilateral environmental agreements is a significant issue,” Patton said. 

What happens next? 

Signing the treaty was a major step for taking some plastic out of the equation. “I wanna say I have all the hope,” Simon said. “The fact that we have come to consensus on the draft resolution so far showcases a collective desire to solve the plastic pollution crisis together.”

But nations, companies, NGOs, and consumers shoulder greater responsibility to make good on its promises over the next few years. 

Several of the member nations have already started to take action. In 2019, the European Union began limiting certain single-use plastics, restricting their sale when sustainable alternatives were easily available. Kenya, the UN host country, banned single-use plastics in protected natural areas in 2020. 

“This is a problem that the world cannot ignore,” Patton said. “It is a problem that has urgent implications for human health and the environment, and we have to move quickly on this issue.”