How to design an effective treaty to tackle plastic pollution

By Sarah J. Morath 5 minutes Read

On February 28, 2022, a meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly will open in Nairobi, Kenya. At this meeting, representatives from 193 countries are expected to consider a resolution that would launch negotiations on a legally binding global treaty to reduce plastic pollution. “[N]o country alone can adequately address the various aspects of this challenge,” the draft resolution states.

I am a Lawyer and studied issues related to food, animal welfare and environmental law. My forthcoming book,Our plastic problem and how to solve it,” explores legislation and policies to deal with this “nasty problem.”

I believe plastic pollution requires a local, national and global response. While it will be difficult to act together on a global scale, lessons learned from some other environmental treaties suggest features that could improve the chances of a successful agreement.

A Pervasive Problem

Scientists have discovered plastic in some of the most remote regions of the globe, from polar ice for Texas-sized gyres, in the middle of the ocean. Plastic can enter the environment from a myriad of sources, ranging from laundry wastewater illegal dumping, incineration of waste and accidental spills.

Plastic never completely degrades. Instead, it breaks down into tiny particles and fibers that are easily ingested by fish, birds, and terrestrial animals. Large pieces of plastic can carry invasive species and accumulate in freshwater and coastal environments, altering ecosystem functions.

A 2021 report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine on ocean plastic pollution concluded that “[w]without changing current practices. . . plastics will continue to accumulate in the environment, especially in the ocean, with adverse consequences for ecosystems and society.

Plastic pollution in figures. [Image: University of Georgia/CC BY-ND]

National policies are not enough

To solve this problem, the United States focused on waste management and recycling rather than regulating plastic producers and the companies that use plastic in their products. Not addressing the sources means that policies have limited impact. This is all the more true since the United States generates 37.5 million tons of plastic per year, but only recycles around 9%.

Some countries, such as France and Kenya, have single-use plastics prohibited. Others, like Germany, have mandated plastic bottle deposit systems. Canada has classify manufactured plastic items as toxicwhich gives its national government broad regulatory power.

In my opinion, however, these efforts will also fail if the countries that produce and use the most plastic do not adopt policies throughout its life cycle.

A growing consensus

Plastic pollution crosses borders, so countries need to work together to reduce it. But the existing treaties, such as that of 1989 Basel Conventionwhich governs the international transport of hazardous waste, and the 1982 law United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, offer little leverage, for several reasons.

First, these treaties were not designed specifically to deal with plastic. Second, the biggest plastic polluters…especially the United States— have not adhered to these agreements. Alternative international approaches, such as the Ocean Plastics Charterwhich encourages governments and global and regional companies to design plastic products for reuse and recycling, are voluntary and non-binding.

Fortunately, many global and business leaders now support a uniform, standardized and coordinated global approach to the management and disposal of plastic waste in the form of a treaty.

The American Chemistry Council, an industry trade association, supports an agreement which will accelerate the transition to a circular economy that promotes waste reduction and reuse by focusing on waste collection, product design and recycling technology. American plastic manufacturers and the International Council of Chemical Associations also made public statements in support of a global agreement to establish “a targeted goal to ensure access to proper waste management and eliminate plastic leakage into the ocean.”

However, these organizations argue that plastic products can help reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, for example by allowing car manufacturers to build lighter cars, and are likely to oppose to an agreement limiting the production of plastic. In my view, this makes government leadership and action essential.

The Biden administration has also came out in favor of a treaty and sends Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the Nairobi meeting. On February 11, 2022, the White House issued a joint statement with France which expressed its support for the negotiation of “a global agreement to address the full life cycle of plastics and promote a circular economy”.

First draft treaties describe two competing approaches. One seeks to reduce plastic throughout its life cycle, from production to disposal – a strategy that would likely include methods such as banning or phasing out single-use plastic products.

A contrasting approach focuses on eliminating plastic waste through innovation and design, for example by spending more on waste collection, recycling and the development of environmentally friendly plastics.

Elements of an Effective Treaty

Countries have come together to solve environmental problems before. The global community has successfully tackled acid rain, stratospheric ozone depletion, and mercury contamination by international treaties. These agreements, which include the United States, provide strategies for a plastics treaty.

The Montreal Protocol, for example, required countries to report their production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances so that countries could hold each other accountable. As part of the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution, countries agreed to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions, but were allowed to choose the method that suited them best. For the United States, this involved a system of buying and selling emission allowances which was now part of the Amendments to the Clean Air Act of 1990.

Based on these precedents, I see plastic as a good candidate for an international treaty. Like ozone, sulfur and mercury, plastic comes from specific and identifiable human activities that occur around the world. Many countries contribute to it, so the problem is cross-border in nature.

In addition to providing a framework to keep plastic out of the ocean, I believe a plastic pollution treaty should include reduction targets for producing less plastic and generating less waste that are specific, measurable and achievable. The treaty should be binding but flexible, allowing countries to achieve these goals as they see fit.

In my opinion, the negotiations should take into account the interests of those who live disproportionate impacts plastic, as well as those who make a living from recycling waste as part of the informal economy. Finally, an international treaty should promote collaboration and the sharing of data, resources and best practices.

Since plastic pollution does not stay in one place, all nations will benefit from finding ways to reduce it.

Sarah J. Morath is an associate professor of legal writing, Wake Forest University.

About Raymond A. Bentley

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