A policy brief from the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) highlights the need to carefully weigh the advantages and drawbacks of a potential global treaty on plastic pollution. If global responses do not address new plastic production, the author argues, the world will be “in an eternal waste cycle.”

The brief titled ‘Confronting the Plastic Pollution Pandemic,’ by Tallash Kantai, is the latest in the ‘Still Only One Earth’ series from the Earth Negotiations Bulletin team.

All efforts to repurpose waste plastics will be for naught if we are still investing in and manufacturing new plastics.

Kantai writes that the plastic pollution problem is expected to grow, given the rising demand for new plastic and the failure of recycling to stem the problem. She reports that only 9% of all plastic produced has ever been recycled, amounting to “an indictment of the 40-year old plastics recycling industry.”

The brief suggests that, while there is “no political divide about the existence of plastic pollution,” the onus for addressing plastic pollution has been misplaced. According to the brief, the focus of the plastic problem is on plastic waste – and thus up to individual consumers to address through recycling – rather than on plastic production. This would “implicate the petrochemical industry and implicitly lay the blame on the oil and gas industry.” But an adequate global response must address both waste and production.

An expert group created in 2017 by the UN Environment Assembly has considered a variety of options to control marine litter, including negotiating a new treaty on plastic pollution or ramping up existing voluntary measures, such as the Group of 20’s (G20) Osaka Blue Ocean Vision and the Group of 7’s (G7) Ocean Plastics Charter

Targets under the 2030 Agenda have lent momentum to addressing waste, and in 2019 parties to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal took the first major legally binding action to control plastic waste by adopting an amendment classifying certain plastic waste as hazardous and subjecting the transboundary movement of that waste to the prior informed consent procedure. This gives countries the right to refuse the importation of any such plastic waste. The Parties also established a partnership to minimize the generation of plastic waste and encourage the recycling of plastic waste. But none of these clearly or effectively discourage virgin plastic production, the brief suggests.

A stronger response could be a treaty that addresses plastic before it becomes waste. The expert group is expected to present the results of its two-year discussion to the next UNEA session (UNEA-5), with the possible result of initiating an intergovernmental negotiating process toward a treaty on plastic pollution.

Kantai stresses that addressing plastic only when it becomes waste – relying on recycling as a silver bullet solution – could leave the world in a never-ending waste cycle. Even using plastic waste to build roads and other infrastructure, a potentially viable pathway to deal with some plastic waste, is not enough to control the mounting pollution problem. The author concludes, “All efforts to repurpose waste plastics will be for naught if we are still investing in and manufacturing new plastics….With fossil fuels linked to both climate change and plastic pollution, it may be time to take the bull by the horns.” It is time to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

The ‘Still Only One Earth’ policy briefs are being released in the lead-up to the 50th anniversaries of the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment and the UN Environment Program (UNEP), which will be marked in 2022. The briefs assess “successes and shortcomings of five decades of global environmental policy,” focusing on biodiversity, wildlife trade, sustainable energyfinance and technology, and climate change, among other issues. [Publication: Confronting the Plastic Pollution Pandemic] [Still Only One Earth policy brief series