How the new global plastic pollution treaty can help to solve this crisis
It is contaminating freshwater, terrestrial and marine ecosystems. Microplastics, plastic particles less than five millimeters large, infiltrate the global dust cycles, water cycles & carbon cycles.
Microplastics are in our food, water and air. These tiny plastic particles may harm populations of wildlife and communities. This can threaten the ecological balance. New research suggests that plastics pose a threat to the planetary boundary, and we have moved outside of our safe operating area.
After years of negotiation, 175 nations pledged to draft the first global treaty for plastic pollution during the UN Environment Assembly held in Nairobi. This resolution was passed 30 years after the first treaty on climate change, which was adopted in 1992. They recognized that greenhouse gases were a problem but did not set quantitative global targets.
As researchers who study plastic pollution and scientists working at the interface of science and policy, there is sufficient evidence to show that the first plastic treaty needs to include binding measures and quantitative targets that encourage a circular economy. This system focuses on reusing plastic waste and reducing it.
No time to Waste
Plastic pollution has the same urgency as climate change. The trend for plastic pollution — the plastic that is emitted into the environment — is increasing, just like it does for greenhouse gases.
We estimated in 2021 that approximately 30 million tonnes of plastic waste will be emitted into freshwater ecosystems and marine ecosystems. If we carry on as before, this number could more than double by the end of the decade.
In 2017, we called on a Global Treaty to facilitate collaboration and a Systemic Shift in the Plastics Economy in 2020 — to transform our linear plastic economy from take-make waste into a circular one (take-make reuse), fundamentally changing how we use plastic materials in order to minimize waste.
The UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi on March 2, 2020, where delegates discussed a binding framework to tackle the growing problem of plastic waste in oceans, rivers, and landscapes around the world, erected a giant sculpture depicting a tap pouring out plastic bottles. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)
What we see as an effective treaty
A global plastic treaty must be based on a circular economy. It should also establish global targets to reduce plastic emissions, similar to the Paris Agreement on carbon emissions.
For the treaty to be successful, it should include global mechanisms which encourage a circular economic system, methods of reporting plastic emissions on a local and national scale, and resources that help economies measure and reduce these emissions.
We envision a global agreement where all countries would sign as signatories and have a reduction target. Each country could, for example, agree to reduce 40% of its emissions from the base year by 2030.
For a circular economy to work, there must be a cap on the production of virgin plastic, standards for recycled content, or incentives that shift from virgin plastic to post-consumer plastic.
We need to change our approach to plastic waste from one of take-make and throw away to one of take-make and reuse.
Each country must develop a plan to achieve its reduction target. There is no universal solution. Each country can come up with its own unique set of solutions to meet its targets.
As an example, some countries adopt container-deposit schemes in order to increase recycling rates. Others may eliminate single-use plastic items such as plastic bags and straws, which are not necessary and do not fit within a circular economy. They might also improve the waste collection and management system, and agree to only market plastics that can be recycled or reused locally, if possible.
As part of the treaty, countries are required to report their plastic emission each year to an organization like UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Formal accounting is required to determine baseline emissions, set reduction targets, and track our progress toward meeting these targets.
Reporting plastic emissions regularly to UNFCCC, as part of the new treaty, could help countries track progress and set reduction targets. (Shutterstock)
Another tool that we can use to help us with climate policy is the emission inventory. This allows us to calculate the total emissions from cities, provinces, and states.
The inventories are essential to check the effectiveness and efficiency of the solutions. They help prioritize the reduction of the emissions coming from the biggest sources in a region. Emissions inventories are used to quantify progress, identify leaders or laggards, and document our successful transition to a Circular Economy.