A binding global agreement to address the life cycle of plastics
Simon, Nils; Karen Raubenheimer, Niko Urho, Sebastian Unger, David Azoulay, Trisia Farrelly, Joao Sousa, Harro van Asselt, Giulia Carlini, Christian Sekomo, Maro Luisa Schulte, Per-Olof Busch, Nicole Wienrich and Laura Weiand
There are increasing signs that negotiations on a global agreement on plastic pollution will start in February 2022. This makes it all the more important to start thinking about what such an agreement should mean and how it can achieve its goals. In a recently published article in the journal Science, we and other scientists identified three core goals and a number of supporting measures that would make such an intergovernmental environmental agreement effective.
Experts agree that 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 first – virtual – half of the fifth UN Environment Assembly in February of this year, numerous states expressed their support for a new UN agreement. On June 1, many of them presented an Oceans Day Plastic Pollution Declaration, in which 79 states call for a legally binding treaty on plastic pollution. On September 1–2, Germany, Ghana, Ecuador and Vietnam will hold a virtual ministerial conference to mark the final sprint to the decisive UN Environment Assembly in the spring of 2022.
As of yet, it is unclear what exactly an agreement would look like. We argue that the plastics convention must set three key goals in order to be effective. First, the total amount of new plastic that can be produced must be capped and gradually reduced – incidentally, this also makes a major contribution to compliance with the 1.5 degree climate target. By 2040, the production of new plastics should be reduced to a minimum. Second, the agreement must stipulate that the plastic economy is as circular as possible, i.e. that plastic is recyclable and ends up recycled. Shared technical standards are indispensable here, along with mandatory information transfer along the value chain. The measures must also help eliminate the nearly 2,500 toxic additives still in use today. Third, plastic pollution in the environment must be cleaned up, both on land – where it is comparatively easy – and in the oceans, where clean-up is much more challenging.