Plastic pollution has become a global issue, impacting wildlife, ecosystems, and human health even in the most remote areas of the planet. To tackle this problem, United Nations member countries are engaged in negotiations to establish a comprehensive global treaty aimed at reducing plastic pollution, with the goal of finalizing the agreement by the close of 2024.
Significant progress has been made in this endeavor. In September 2023, the U.N. Environment Programme unveiled the initial draft, known as the “zero draft,” outlining ideas and objectives generated from the initial two rounds of negotiations. Subsequently, in November 2023, the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution convened in Nairobi, Kenya, for the third round of negotiations, marking the halfway point in the planned five-session process.
Research indicates that plastic poses threats throughout its entire life cycle, from production to consumption and disposal. Environmental advocates viewed the draft treaty positively as it encompasses provisions addressing each of these stages. The draft includes 13 provisions covering aspects such as reducing plastic production, encouraging the use of recycled materials, phasing out single-use plastics, promoting alternative materials, and restricting the use of hazardous chemicals found in plastics. However, despite three rounds of negotiations, key issues remain unresolved.
Certain nations persist in concentrating on end-of-life measures such as disposal and recycling, while others prioritize the reduction of plastic production. Notably, the United States, the largest contributor to global plastic waste, has been hesitant to endorse ambitious objectives. Encouragingly, the Biden administration recently acknowledged the necessity for national plans to align with internationally agreed-upon targets for reducing plastic, rather than urging individual actions by countries. However, the U.S. stance on other critical issues remains unclear.
Despite its various applications and cost-effectiveness, plastic is facing criticism for what some describe as a societal dependence. A significant portion, approximately 36%, of global plastic production caters to single-use items like food packaging, straws, grocery bags, and utensils, fueled by consumers’ preference for convenience. While global plastic production doubled from 2000 to 2019, recycling rates in the U.S. and other regions have remained essentially stagnant.
Past treaties have effectively mitigated other global environmental issues, such as acid rain, stratospheric ozone depletion, and mercury contamination. Many environmental advocates view the development of a global plastic treaty as a unique opportunity akin to the 2015 Paris accord addressing global climate change. However, based on my research into combating plastic pollution, I assert that the success of such an agreement hinges on major governments adopting a life-cycle approach that addresses all stages of the plastic value chain, from production to disposal. Given that plastics are derived from petrochemicals, the fossil fuel industry wields significant influence in the outcome and will require incentives to support proposals limiting production.