Future of the Environment

Plastic pollution: Why we urgently need a comprehensive global treaty

FILE PHOTO: Children walk over a plastic pollution area as they collect plastic materials in Dhaka, Bangladesh, January 24, 2022. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain/File Photo

Plastic pollution in Dhaka, Bangladesh Image: REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain/File Photo

Gim Huay Neo
Managing Board, Head of Centre for Nature and Climate, World Economic Forum
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  • Governments and businesses have been calling for an international and legally binding treaty mandating targets to reduce plastic pollution.
  • Proponents say that any treaty must be bold, ambitious, broad and urgently concluded.
  • Countries could agree to global targets ahead of implementing a treaty to address the urgent need for reducing plastic waste.

As the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) hosted by the UN Environment Programme opens today, the near 300 million tonnes of plastic waste – the equivalent of the weight of the entire human population – is front of mind.

Of that waste, approximately 8 million tonnes ends up in the ocean, accompanied by an estimated 24.4 trillion pieces of micro-plastics, the plastic particles you can't see. The number of those particles per cubic meter has been suggested to outnumber zooplankton in the same area, essential for maintaining marine ecosystems and affecting our climate.

The scale of plastic pollution is evidently huge, with the impacts extending to negative economic, social and health effects. That is why calls have been mounting for a legally binding international treaty to ensure a coordinated global response from governments, businesses and civil society to tackle its problems.

But with the monumental challenge ahead, such an agreement must be "bold, ambitious, broad and urgently concluded".

Such were the conclusions at a recent World Economic Forum meeting on Building Momentum Towards a Global Treaty on Plastic Pollution, held online on 9 February 2022, prior to the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA).

Panellists from government, industry and the non-profit sector unravelled how to tackle the stark problems associated with plastic waste.

Because, as useful as plastics are in the modern world, they have little utility washed up on a beach or when they cost the tourism, shipping, fishing and other industries around $500-2,500 billion in losses; not to mention the health impacts and risk of endocrine disruption from marine plastics.

And while we're busy racing to net zero emissions to prevent climate change, plastic production is being ramped up despite the emissions risk from plastics, which originate from fossil fuels.

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A global response to plastic pollution

As the oceans move plastics around, plastic waste has become a global phenomenon, needing a global plan of action implemented by people and supply chains worldwide.

As Peru’s Minister of Environment, Modesto Montoya, highlights, “Because plastic pollution is a transboundary problem, it cannot be addressed individually. Binding multilateral measures are needed to prevent and reduce plastic pollution in the environment, including microplastics."

He explains, "the only way is for governments around the world to agree to work together with ambitious objectives, and concrete measures, based on a comprehensive approach and considering the full lifecycle of plastics”.

Plastic pollution dominates ocean garbage
Plastic pollution dominates ocean garbage. Image: Statista

What is positive, however, is that awareness of these dire consequences is increasing, and a great foundation for change has been followed by various voluntary actions taken by governments, municipalities, consumers and companies.

"Young people around the world. And specifically, those in marginalized communities are already taking action," explained Inés Yábar, Communications Coordinator and Co-Founder of Life Out Of Plastic (L.O.O.P.).

In Peru, for example, L.O.O.P. started a project involving thousands of cleanups, collecting data throughout the country, measuring plastic pollution, which led to 15 bills presented to Congress in 2018 to regulate single-use plastic that directly quoted their data.

"It's necessary to include local actions specifically for the communities that are most affected," said Yába.

Various other examples also give hope: initiatives to promote ocean sustainability in the Galapagos Islands, for instance, have been successful. Other treaties and work from multilateral bodies have also paved the way for progress, like the Basel, Bern and Stockholm conventions addressing plastic waste, conservation and organic pollutant, and work of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change In the corporate sector, Unilever's offer to reduce micro-plastics is a commitment that all products will be biodegradable by 2030.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

Immediate systemic change on plastic pollution

The sum of all these efforts, which are piecemeal and disparate, cannot, unfortunately, take on the whole challenge. A global treaty, on the other hand, can be a conduit for immediate change if done effectively, such as, by:

  • Dealing with the entire lifecycle of plastic, addressing reduction, consumption, collection and management.
  • Promoting a circular economy with a high degree of recyclable and recycled plastics being used in new products.
  • Including regulatory measures that address the entire value chain- from upstream to downstream – addressing the consequences of waste and pollution.
  • Enabling policies for business models to reduce the use and production of plastics.
  • Incorporating financial mechanisms to support system change and help countries without economic resources implement the necessary infrastructure.
  • Incorporating ways to improve the lives and rights of those working in the informal waste sector who will be instrumental to implementing a circular economy in many countries.
  • Multistakeholder action that involves ministries, businesses, civil society and citizens in comprehensive objectives.
  • Setting common standards and clear goals with measurable targets, including for how much recyclable plastics should be used. Matching the ambitious aims of climate emission targets to zero plastic pollution in the environment.

There is an urgent need for this treaty and for countries to adopt national action plans. Even as we seek to agree to ambitious global targets, we need to proceed with local commitments and action. In the immediate interim, such commitments could make a serious dent in the volume of plastic pollution produced worldwide.

Working towards this framework will ultimately take coordination and collaboration from across the board; the goals have to be bold and the approach holistic. The World Economic Forum will play its role in convening those voices to help rid the world of plastics pollution.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Future of the EnvironmentClimate Change
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