In front of the United Nations African headquarters in Nairobi, a 30-foot-high artwork featuring a faucet “spewing” a long stream of plastic waste dramatically illustrates the worsening flow of plastic fouling the world. Inside the main hall, 175 UN delegates took the first formal steps on Wednesday to turn off the tap. They agreed to negotiate the first comprehensive global treaty to curb plastic pollution—a move hailed as the most significant environmental agreement since the Paris climate accord in 2015.
The framework of the agreement was hammered out last week ahead of the delegates’ vote. It creates a road map for treaty negotiations that are set to begin in May. Inger Andersen, who heads the UN Environment Program, told the delegates: “This is a historic moment.”
Plastic waste flowing into the oceans is forecast to triple by 2040, so the vote came not a moment too soon. Or did it? The effort to construct an international agreement to gain control of mounting plastic waste took almost five years just to get to the starting line. How can the UN, slow-moving by design, possibly come up with a solution in time to stave off an environmental disaster? Below is a guide to what’s involved, and why a binding global treaty may be the world’s best hope to contain a plastic waste crisis that knows no international boundaries.
Q: How might a global treaty help solve the plastic waste crisis?
A: It would address the crux of the problem by requiring nations to commit to cleaning up their plastic waste. Because the treaty would be legally binding, it could pack more punch than the Paris accord, which requires nations to voluntarily commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. “This is like ‘Paris Plus,’” says Chris Dixon, the deputy ocean campaign lead at the U.K.-based Environmental Investigation Agency. “The devil is in the details, but this makes sure the ambition of the mandate is carried through. This is the beginning of the journey, not the end.”
Q: Can this process be fast-tracked?
A: Negotiators say they plan to reach an agreement within two years, astonishingly quick for the UN. The UN began exploring solutions to plastic waste in 2017. In 2019, the United States, which produces more plastic waste per capita than any other nation, was blamed for thwarting efforts to begin treaty talks, as the Trump administration opposed such a treaty. Last November, the U.S. reversed course and, along with France, announced support for a legally binding treaty. The approach is based on the treaty to end mercury pollution—known as the Minamata Convention which was finalized in just over three years. And it could take less time than the agreement to address climate change took.
Q: What changed to allow this to move forward?
A: Plastic waste has proliferated in recent years, and has been documented in every part of the world. As plastic production has increased—growing faster than production of any other material—the waste issue has taken on a greater urgency. That, in turn, has drawn wide support from all quarters for a global treaty. The American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group that opposed a legally binding treaty in 2019, now supports one. As two proposals were circulated—one by Peru and Rwanda, the other by Japan—support snowballed. By the time negotiators convened in Kenya’s capital city last month, those publicly backing a global treaty included more than 300 scientists, more than 140 nations, and nearly 100 leaders of multinational companies, including some of the largest plastics users: the Coca Cola Company, PepsiCo, and Unilever.
Q: What’s on the table?
A: The framework’s language is only a guide for the actual treaty talks. Consequently, the language is basic in many places. For example, negotiators had to define what the plastic lifecycle entails. Should the treaty focus on when plastic becomes waste? Solutions in that case would revolve around expansion of reuse programs, recycling, and enhanced and better-funded waste management. Or is the plastic lifecycle more expansive, meaning the treaty would include every step along the way—from production of virgin plastic to packaging design, product distribution, and disposal after use? The industry focused on waste management, but the negotiators opted to recommend the broader definition. Tackling the problem from multiple angles provides more opportunities to intervene along the way, and that could reduce the amount of packaging that becomes waste or eliminate it altogether.
Q: Why do we need an international treaty? Aren’t many nations already addressing the problem?
A: It’s a global problem, and we need a global solution to solve it. About eight million tons of plastic are estimated to spill into the seas every year, and is known to travel across oceans. One nation’s regulations do not prevent another nation’s waste from reaching its shores. Bag bans in one country don’t stop neighboring countries from smuggling in bags for a tidy profit. Plastic waste is also traded internationally; that involves international agreements. More importantly, there are no uniform global standards or policies that guide the industry. Definitions of biodegradable plastics vary, depending on the manufacturer. And virtually no one can sort out the varying rules on what plastics can go into the recycle bin. Meanwhile, multinational corporations selling in multiple nations can find themselves sorting through hundreds of regulations affecting such issues as product design or packaging thickness. These companies strongly support harmonizing definitions, reporting metrics, and methodologies that will simplify industry practices and improve management of waste.
Q: How serious is the plastic waste problem?
A: Forty percent of all plastics manufactured today is for packaging, most of it disposed of within minutes of opening it. Globally, just 9 percent of plastics get recycled. Both waste and production are on the rise: Between 1950 and 2020, production of plastic, which is made from fossil fuels, increased from roughly two million tons annually to just over 500 million tons. Production is projected to further increase to one billion tons by 2050. Consensus is growing among scientists, activists, and elected officials that to truly curtail the growth of plastic waste, plastic production must be reduced. The industry disagrees.
Q: Does the framework call for a cap or reduction in production of virgin plastic?
A: No, it does not. The framework also does not include a requirement that production numbers be reported along with other statistics. Collection of production data represents the first step before any regulations could be written—and it’s a step that industry would like to avoid. On this subject, the framework contains a single sentence, instructing negotiators to “specify national reporting as appropriate”—not a strong directive, but one that does leave the door open to sharper language during the treaty talks.
The framework has drawn universal praise from the parties involved. The International Council of Chemical Associations said in a statement it was “pleased with the outcome and fully supports a legally binding agreement… .”
Ellen MacArthur, founder of the nonprofit Ellen MacArthur Foundation, is a proponent of creating a “circular economy” to reduce waste of any kind through reuse and recycling. She called the mandated agreement key to dealing with “the root of causes of plastic pollution, not just the symptoms.”
In Nairobi Wednesday, Anderson told the delegation at the UN that reaching agreement to proceed toward a treaty “would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. But today … you are taking a crucial step to turn the tide on plastic pollution.” He then recalled how his mother eavesdropped on a pair of American businessmen in a cafe in Denmark a few years before he was born. The men laid out colorful blocks made of a strange new material in front of them, and she heard them say: “This is plastic. This is the future.”
“Look—in the space of one lifetime, we have created a massive problem…,” Anderson said. “Now we must make the wrong-headed way we manufacture and use plastic the past.”