In this week Uruguay, scientists, environmentalists and government representatives – and, of course, lobbyists – are meeting to begin negotiations on a UN treaty on plastics. It’s only the beginning of the talks, so we don’t know what they’ll look like, but some of the negotiating cards on the table include production cuts and the phasing out of particularly tricky chemical components. A draft resolution released in March set the tone, recognizing that “high and rapidly increasing levels of plastic pollution are a serious environmental problem on a global scale, negatively impacting the environmental, social and economic dimensions of sustainable development.”
Which is a bureaucratic way of saying plastic pollution is both macroplastics such as bags and bottles, and microplastics like fibers from synthetic clothing – is a planetary catastrophe of the highest order, and one that is getting exponentially worse. Humanity is now producing a trillion pounds of plastic a year, and that will double by 2045. Only 9 percent of all plastic ever produced has been recycled – and currently the United States recycles only 5 percent of its plastic waste. The rest is thrown into landfills or incinerated, or escapes into the environment. Rich countries also have a nasty habit of exporting their plastic waste to economically developing countries, where the stuff is often burned in open pits and poisons surrounding communities. Plastics are also a major contributor to carbon emissions – after all, they are made from fossil fuels.
Environmentalists and scientists who study pollution agree that the way to solve the plastic problem is not through more recycling, or giant pipes collecting the waste floating in the ocean, but by massively reducing its production. But while we don’t know what will ultimately end up in the treaty – negotiations are expected to last until 2024 – don’t expect it to end plastic production the way a peace treaty would end a war. Instead, it could push humanity to deal with its debilitating addiction to polymers, for example by turning to single-use plastics. “We won’t have a world without plastic — that’s not in the very near future,” said Deonie Allen, a plastics scientist at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. “The way we use it now, That is a choice we can make today.”
Think of the outright flow of plastic into the environment as a stream. If you want to deal with the problem downstream, you remove the waste that is already in the environment, like a beach cleanup does. Further upstream– literally – you could use river ships to intercept plastic before it reaches the ocean. But the furthest upstream that you can go just doesn’t produce plastic in the first place.
That’s why the treaty should include a limit on plastic production, an international team of scientists argued in the journal Science after the draft resolution was published. “What we’re really going to push for is mandatory and mandatory production restrictions,” said Jane Patton, plastics and petrochemicals campaign manager at the Center for International Environmental Law, who is attending the talks. “We are going to push for changes in how the plastics are produced to remove toxic chemicals from production and the supply chain.”
Indeed, the draft resolution calls for addressing the “full life cycle” of plastic, from production to disposal. But time will tell how successful the negotiators will actually be in agreeing on a limit. Ideally, they would agree to an internationally binding limit, but it is also possible for individual countries to eventually make their own commitments.