A United Nations environmental panel has agreed to a mandate to negotiate a legally binding treaty addressing the full lifecycle of plastic from production to disposal.
The move is intended to cut down on the plastic waste that is clogging waterways, killing habitats and raising health questions over human ingestion of tiny particles. And it puts fresh impetus on the oil, chemical and plastics industries to step up the technology around reuse and recycling.
The mandate announced Wednesday will guide the text of the treaty, which will be drafted and ratified over the next two years.
“For the first time in history, we are seeing unprecedented global momentum to tackle the plague of plastic pollution,” said U.N. Environment Program Executive Director Inger Andersen, in the lead-up to this week’s talks.
Plastic production, which has revolutionized everything from administering medical care to keeping food fresh longer, is slated to quadruple by 2050. Dealing with plastic pollution could take up to 10%-13% of the global budget to reduce carbon emissions, by some measures. Read more on plastics from the EPA.
“ ‘We are seeing unprecedented global momentum to tackle the plague of plastic pollution.’”
— Inger Andersen
All used plastic can be turned into new things, but picking it up, sorting it and melting it down is expensive. Plastic also degrades each time it is reused, meaning it can’t be reused too many times. New plastic is much cheaper to make. It’s a derivative of oil and gas, and it historically has been of better quality when starting fresh with virgin plastic.
The plastics industry, and affiliated oil and chemical trade groups, emphasize the funding that goes into recycling and new developments in reuse.
Plastics as a category is also very diverse, Patrick Krieger, the vice president of sustainability at the Plastics Industry Association, tells Consumer Reports.
More than $7.5 billion has been invested in projects and facilities that use advanced plastics recycling technologies, although more infrastructure needs to be built to grow these technologies to commercial scale, says the American Chemistry Council, a trade association.
For now, the world is producing twice as much plastic waste as it was just 20 years ago, with the bulk of it ending up in landfills, incinerated in open pits — creating emissions — or making its way into ocean habitats and our own respiratory systems, a report out last month said. Only about 9% of the world’s plastic is successfully recycled, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
If a plastics treaty is endorsed by the U.N. Environment Assembly, Andersen said it “would be the most significant global, environmental governance decision since the Paris [Climate] Agreement in 2015,” which set a global target of holding warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and at least no more than 2 degrees.
“‘It is promising that the mandate will look at plastic across its entire life cycle, shifting us away from problematic end-of-pipe interventions like waste incineration.’ ”
— Niven Reddy
Environmental groups called the plastics pact significant in large part because it will be legally binding. Voluntary actions can complement mandatory actions, but not replace them.
And, the treaty will consider the full lifecycle of plastic, from the wellhead where oil
and gas is extracted, through its production and consumption, to post-consumer waste.
“It is promising that the mandate will look at plastic across its entire lifecycle, shifting us away from problematic end-of-pipe interventions like waste incineration, and instead addressing the issue further upstream, in its production phase,” said Niven Reddy, GAIA Africa Coordinator. GAIA was formerly known as Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives.
Two major proposals have emerged during years of international discussions about ways to reduce single use plastic.
The first, by Peru and Rwanda, calls for a full spectrum approach to plastic pollution, covering raw materials extraction, plastic production, as well as plastic use and disposal. This pact also extends to the micro plastics found in toothpaste, lotions and more, and created when larger plastic breaks down.
The U.K., the European Union, Chile and several other nations back this plan.
A second proposal, sponsored by Japan, focuses on marine plastic pollution covering the whole life cycle and promoting resource efficiency and the circular economy, including reuse.
The environmental group Greenpeace supports the Peru-Rwanda proposal’s full lifecycle approach.
“Over 140 countries have declared support for opening negotiations on a global plastic treaty,” said Erastus Ooko, the plastics engagement lead for Greenpeace Africa. “However, support for negotiations is not enough. These countries should be calling for a legally binding treaty that will match the scale and depth of the plastics crisis.”
—The Associated Press contributed.