Can the tide of plastic pollution be turned by a new global pact?

by Michael Taylor | @MickSTaylor | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 2 March 2022 17:00 GMT

Plastic bottles and a flip-flop lie on the sand at Maccarese beach in Rome, Italy, November 21, 2018. REUTERS/Max Rossi

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With plastic waste increasing fast and polluting the world’s oceans, U.N. talks aimed at tackling the problem have agreed to launch work on a global pact to stem it - but will it help?

By Michael Taylor

March 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From drinks bottles to straws and cotton buds, the amount of plastic waste that flows into the world's oceans and marine areas is expected to nearly triple by 2040, adding up to 37 million tonnes each year, the U.N. Environment Programme says.

Just 9% of all the plastic waste ever produced has been recycled, while about 12% has been incinerated. The remainder has finished up in landfills, dumps or the environment, according to the U.N. agency (UNEP).

In a bid to tackle the growing plastic waste crisis, government officials from around the world agreed on Wednesday to start talks toward a historic global plastic pollution treaty at the U.N. Environment Assembly conference in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

It is unclear whether the planned pact will include measures to curb the production of single-use plastic items and packaging, or focus simply on waste management.

U.N. officials said the adoption of the resolution to create a legally binding plastic pollution treaty, due to be finalised by 2024, was the most significant environmental deal since the 2015 Paris climate accord.

Here's why a global treaty - which will also involve businesses and civil society - is seen as vital to protect the environment, human health and the global economy:

Why is plastic waste such a problem, and who's behind it?

The United States is the biggest per-capita producer of plastic waste, but in many developing nations a combination of fast-growing economies and populations and long coastlines have filled local seas with plastic rubbish.

Refuse collection and recycling services have largely failed to keep pace with economic development and increased plastic use over the last four decades, particularly in developing countries.

China - once the world's biggest importer of plastic waste - halted imports in 2018, prompting many wealthy countries to divert their garbage to other developing nations.

Soon after, containers full of unsorted trash - often mislabelled as plastics for recycling - were shipped to various developing countries, causing diplomatic tension.

Faced with growing stockpiles, some countries ramped up the burning of plastics to produce energy or sent the waste to landfill. Both have a severely damaging impact on the environment, green groups have warned.

Much of the rest is discarded in the environment and finds its way into the sea, mainly via the world's rivers, which serve as direct conduits of trash.

"Almost all the plastic eventually ends up in the ocean. ... You can be a non-plastic nation and can still get it onto your shores, into your fish, your blood and into your water system. We are one planet," Espen Barth Eide, Norway's climate minister and president of the Nairobi conference, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Why is a global treaty needed?

From the 1980s on, the world quickly became dependent on single-use or disposable plastic, with half of all plastic produced designed to be used only once and then thrown away - from shampoo bottles to shopping bags.

In the early 2000s, the amount of plastic waste rose more in a single decade than it did in the previous 40 years, according to UNEP, with annual plastic waste now totalling about 300 million tonnes.

Globally, 1 million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute, while 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used every year, the U.N. agency added.

The use of disposable plastic, made from oil and gas, supports the fossil fuel industry - fuelling climate change - and hurts the tourism, fishing and shipping industries, according to green groups and economists.

"All evidence suggests that plastic contamination of the ocean is irreversible," Heike Vesper, director of the marine programme at WWF Germany said in a statement. "Once distributed in the ocean, plastic waste is almost impossible to retrieve."

The coronavirus pandemic has presented an additional challenge, as single-use plastic consumption has increased during the crisis.

About 75% of plastic generated by the COVID-19 pandemic - such as medical waste and packaging from home deliveries - will likely end up in landfills or the sea, according to U.N. estimates.

What are countries doing to tackle the problem?

Many nations and cities have introduced bans on single-use plastic items, and improved waste collection and recycling.

Public awareness campaigns have also had an impact on consumer behaviour - such as not using single-use drinking straws, or opting for reusable water bottles and coffee cups - along with incentives for recycling.

Communities living near or in coastal areas have teamed up with businesses to form voluntary groups that collect rubbish that washes up on their shores, hoping to protect nature and vital tourism industries.

Meanwhile, new technologies - like mobile apps and GPS - are also being used to help with urban waste collection and management, often using informal garbage collectors.

Facing increased consumer pressure, big brands have pledged to cut plastic waste, with the likes of Coca Cola and PepsiCo among more than 70 signatories to call for a global pact to combat plastic pollution.

What is a circular economy and how can it help?

In a circular economy, waste materials - such as metals, minerals and plastic - are recycled back into new raw materials for a next round of production, reducing rubbish and pollution.

"You need to design products for being circulated - you actually need to collect them, you need to actually recycle them and you need to prioritise recycled products in the end," said Eide, who is presiding over the negotiations in Nairobi.

About 70% of planet-heating emissions are related to the production and use of products - from the buildings we live in and the transport we use, to the food we eat and the clothes we wear, according to a January report from Amsterdam-based social enterprise Circle Economy.

These emissions are generated by resource extraction, processing and manufacturing of goods, it added.

The report's authors said nations are missing an opportunity to slash emissions by adopting circular economy policies that reduce demand for resources and could help meet the Paris accord target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Among their suggestions is for countries to use recycled metal and plastics to make vehicles and recycle vehicles.

"Our insatiable demand for resources and throwaway economy is threatening the planet's future and driving us down the road to climate breakdown," Martijn Lopes Cardozo, Circle Economy's chief executive, said in a statement.

This piece was updated on March 2, with news of the U.N. approval of an agreement to create the world's first ever global plastic pollution treaty and quotes from Norway's climate minister.

Related stories:

Less consumption, more recycling needed to meet climate goals, ministers say 

Youth activist calls for joint effort to clean up Indonesia's seas

Plastic pandemic: COVID-19 trashed the recycling dream 

Tiny East Timor to become world's first plastic-neutral nation

(Reporting by Michael Taylor in Kuala Lumpur @MickSTaylor; additional reporting by Alister Doyle in Norway; Editing by Helen Popper and Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)