17 February 2022
Governments Weigh New Global Treaty on Plastics and Sustainable Development
Photo Credit: Jeremy Bishop in Unsplash
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From 28 February-2 March 2022, the UN Environment Assembly is holding a historic meeting (UNEA 5.2) that will discuss a mandate to create the world’s first plastics treaty, an international law aimed at reducing plastic pollution worldwide.

A strong, binding treaty that covers the full plastic life cycle would be a transformative step towards more sustainable communities and thriving local economies.

By Claire Arkin, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA)

Plastic pollution doesn’t stop at borders. It’s everywhere: in the water we drink, the air we breathe, and even in the most remote parts of the planet. International policy measures must be taken to address the scope of the problem. Later this month, we have an opportunity to do just that.

From 28 February-2 March 2022, the United Nations Environment Assembly is holding a historic meeting (UNEA 5.2) that will discuss a mandate to create the world’s first plastics treaty, an international law aimed at reducing plastic pollution worldwide. If done right, this could give the world a real chance to both beat plastic pollution and further the Sustainable Development Goals.

Elements to get right

As we have explained recently, the devil is in the details. In order to be successful, the treaty must:

  • Cover the full life-cycle of plastic. Currently, the international legal framework is a patchwork. To improve on it, a treaty must be comprehensive, with a focus on reducing the amount of plastic made, not just collecting plastic waste. This will have benefits for climate action as well: most emissions from plastic occur during production.
  • Have an open mandate. The treaty should be designed to consider new concerns and devise new solutions as the science develops.
  • Be legally binding. Voluntary action has been tried and is insufficient.
  • Include transparent reporting. Clear metrics and open data are needed to track progress and identify areas that need more support.
  • Include technical and financial assistance for a just transition. This will stimulate strong national policy and compliance, as well as international support.
  • Ensure stakeholder participation and a human rights-based approach. Communities around the world, particularly those most burdened by plastic pollution and climate change, must have a say in the treaty’s content and execution.

Rwanda and Peru have put forward a joint resolution that addresses the full scope of the problem– identifying solutions at each stage of the plastic life cycle from extraction of raw materials to disposal. In contrast, Japan has tabled another plan, one that relies on the failed approach of treating the plastic crisis as solely a waste management issue. This would guarantee a weak treaty that attempts to mop up the problem instead of turning off the tap.

Fortunately, many countries have rallied around the Rwanda-Peru resolution, but it remains to be seen whether the text will stay intact as negotiations evolve. A particular threat is that the petrochemical industry will promote harmful approaches like plastic incineration, which will only provide an escape valve for continued plastic production while creating toxic and climate pollution.

One industry-favored approach is so-called chemical recycling, or plastic-to-fuel– essentially, using massive amounts of energy to turn plastic back into a fossil fuel, which is then burned. Studies have shown that chemical “recycling”  is infeasible from a technical and economic standpoint. A treaty agreement that approves or worse, subsidizes, such schemes would undermine its own core goals.

The wide sustainability gains of a global plastics treaty 

If a treaty is agreed along the lines discussed above, its benefits would be far-reaching.

Unlike the very visible problem of plastic in our oceans and dumpsites, another plastic crisis often goes unseen, but not unfelt: its toxicity. There is a growing scientific consensus that hazardous chemicals in plastic food packaging leaches into the food itself, and from there into our bodies. In  the 2030 Agenda, every government has committed to ensuring healthy lives and promoting wellbeing for all at all ages (SDG 3). A plastics treaty can help fulfill this commitment by phasing out toxic chemicals and additives and incentivizing safe, reusable packaging and better delivery systems. This, in turn, will spur business innovation and investment in more sustainable infrastructure,  helping to achieve additional aspects of the 2030 Agenda.

Plastic has an enormous climate impact, and much of it comes from production. For far too long, governments around the world have raced to clean up the mess while production continues to grow exponentially. By 2050, emissions from plastic alone will take up over a third of the remaining carbon budget for a 1.5 °C target. A global plastics treaty that puts a cap on plastic production would be pivotal to achieving the climate action goal (SDG 13), in line with the Paris Agreement.

Like many of the world’s biggest challenges, the impacts of plastic are not shared equally. Plastic production is fueled by the fossil fuel and fast-moving consumer goods industries primarily based in the global north, which then export the most unrecyclable packaged goods and waste to developing countries. Thus, communities in developed countries reap the economic benefits of these industries while placing a disproportionate toxic burden on the environment and communities in developing countries. Such global inequities can be remedied by a strong plastics treaty that closes the loopholes left by the 2019 Basel Convention: reducing plastic production first and foremost, encouraging better source-separation, more strictly curtailing waste exports, and demanding more transparency in local and national waste generation.

A global plastic treaty has the potential to not only curb plastic pollution, but to address poverty and gender inequality by creating better and more inclusive jobs. Waste pickers play a critical role in reducing solid waste management costs and diverting valuable materials from landfills. There are an estimated 20 million waste pickers worldwide, predominantly women from socially and ethnically marginalized communities. A global plastic treaty could establish the legal frameworks and policies required to improve working conditions for waste pickers, including acknowledging and legitimizing their role.

The job creation potential of inclusive recycling systems averages 321 jobs per 10,000 tonnes per year of recyclables–incorporating the informal sector would positively impact economies around the world. Studies show that waste reduction strategies like reuse, repair, composting and recycling score the highest on environmental benefits and create the most jobs of any waste management approach, over 200 times as many jobs as other disposal methods such as landfilling and incineration.

By mandating more responsible production and consumption of finite resources, a strong, binding treaty that covers the full plastic life cycle would be a transformative step towards more sustainable communities and thriving local economies.

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