It is no longer a question of whether, but when a global agreement on plastic pollution will come about and what form it will take. At the fifth UN Environment Assembly (UNEA 5.1) in February of this year, numerous states expressed their support for a new UN agreement. The online negotiations did not provide a suitable framework for more far-reaching decisions, however.
The pressure for a global plastic treaty is growing
The states that are determined to act are keeping up the pressure: 79 governments have already supported the Plastic Pollution Declaration. This was published on Oceans Day on June 1, 2021 and calls for a legally binding treaty against plastic waste. On September 1-2, Germany, Ghana, Ecuador and Vietnam will hold a virtual ministerial conference for a global plastic treaty. The conference will kick off the final sprint to the decisive UN Environment Assembly next spring (UNEA 5.2). In May 2021, Peru and Rwanda announced that they would introduce a resolution UNEA 5.2 that would give the mandate for the start of intergovernmental negotiations. Environmental protection organisations and numerous companies have been calling for a binding convention for years – there is no other way to deal with the problem.
The three core goals of a binding plastics deal
But what should an effective agreement look like to get the growing amount of plastic pollution under control? In our article in Science, we set out three key objectives:
First, the total amount of newly produced plastic must be capped and gradually reduced. By 2040, the production of new plastics should be reduced to a minimum. This makes a significant contribution to compliance with the 1.5 degree climate target. If the production of new plastic remained on its current growth path, it would devour 10 percent of the remaining CO2 budget by the middle of the century.
Second, the agreement must stipulate that as much plastic as possible is recycled. This means that plastic must be easily and safely recyclable and also ends up recycled. To achieve such a circular plastic economy, the agreement needs binding technical standards. The seamless transfer of information along the value chain must also be mandatory. In addition, measures must be taken to remove the nearly 2,500 toxic additives still in use today.
Third, existing plastic pollution needs to be cleaned up. This applies to plastic waste on land – which will be challenging enough – but also to waste in lakes, rivers and oceans, where clean-up is much more difficult. The following applies here: the more strictly the first two goals are met, the lower the costs for the third goal.
The entire life cycle of plastic must be taken into account
In the past, plastic has mostly been treated as a problem of the oceans and as a waste issue at international level. However, this cannot stem the increasing flood of plastic waste in the environment. A new environmental agreement must cover the entire life cycle of plastic, from design, manufacture, processing, trade and use, to disposal including recycling. The goal must be a safe, clean, circular economy for plastic.
Only supplemental actions can ensure implementation – suggestions for their design
As usual with international agreements, a plastic agreement needs a number of supporting measures. States should develop ambitious plans to meet the goals – so-called National Plastic Pollution Prevention Plans, or N4Ps. These plans should be checked by a peer review to determine whether they are suitable for the achievement of the objectives. Careful monitoring of progress is then required. After all, time is of the essence, with almost 400 million tons of plastic produced every year, for the most part from fossil raw materials.
The agreement also needs a financing mechanism: this must support developing countries in getting suitable laws in motion and implementing them. The biggest polluters should be the greatest contributors to the solution. Furthermore, a functioning interface between science and politics is required: current research results must flow into political decision-making processes and the scientific community must know the science needs of politics. We have described the design of such a science-policy interface here.
After all, it should be clear to negotiators that a new plastic deal must close the gaps in existing conventions and voluntary action plans. What is needed is an overarching framework for action with strong goals and measures that applies worldwide and covers the large producers, in particular. If that succeeds, a plastic agreement can not only protect the environment and prevent social and economic damage, it will also help to create economic opportunities, promote innovation and move billions in investments (for example in the recycling industry). The disposable society is no longer economically or ecologically sustainable.