A Global Plastic Treaty is on the Way

By: Uyen Nguyen

175 world leaders have begun drafting an agreement addressing all stages of the plastic life cycle at the annual conference of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The assembly took place at the UNEP headquarter in Nairobi, Kenya from February 28 to March 2. With the theme of sustainable development, the goal of the assembly was to provide a solution that prioritizes reusable materials and minimizes waste.

Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP, called the resolution “the most significant environmental multilateral deal” since the Paris Agreement, an accord signed by 195 countries in 2015 to limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“Today marks a triumph by planet earth over single-use plastics,” Andersen said. “It is an insurance policy for this generation and future ones, so they may live with plastic and not be doomed by it.”

A UNEP report estimates 11 million tons of plastic enter the world’s oceans every year, but only 9% is being recycled. This number could triple by 2040 without urgent action.

“Plastics are made from raw resources, including oil or natural gas,” SHS sophomore Charlotte Pototsky said. “Depending on the type of plastic used and its intended purpose, the amount of time it takes for plastic to break down can vary drastically.”

“While being light, easy to ship, flexible, and inexpensive, there are an overwhelming amount of cons that outweigh the pros,” she added.

“Plastic pollution has grown into an epidemic,” Norway’s Climate and Environment Minister Espen Barth Eide said. “With today’s resolution we are officially on track for a cure.”

The first treaty to address plastic pollution covers the extraction of fossil fuel, the design of plastic, their production, consumption, and disposal. The resolution emphasizes the sustainable design of products and materials so that they can be reused and “retained in the economy for as long as possible.” 

Steve Fletcher, Director of Sustainability and Environment at the University of Portsmouth in the UK said the plastics problem spans international borders. “One country can’t deal with plastic pollution alone, no matter how good its policies are,” Fletcher said.

“Most people don’t realize is that [Pacific Garbage Patch] is not the only garbage patch in the ocean. There are five ocean gyres that are actually collecting plastics, so we are getting these floating islands of plastics in the ocean,” SHS environmental science teacher Ms. Emily Burke said.

“We need a global agreement to enable us to deal with the widespread challenges that plastic gives us as a society,” Fletcher added.

Recognizing separated efforts of companies and countries in the use of sustainable materials, the proposal also promotes national and international collaborative measures to reduce plastic pollution in the marine environment. 

“Money talks,” Ms. Burke said. “To get people to make a change, unfortunately, we have to show them how it’s gonna be worth it in their pockets.”

While the treaty won’t be finalized until 2024, many environmental groups and the waste and recycling industry see the treaty as a key driver for regulating plastics and climate change. 

“It’s hard to know the actual impacts that it will have directly on me or my community,” Pototsky said. “But I know that I can follow and encourage generally sustainable practices in Sharon.”

“While we definitely put some effort into sustainability at Sharon High School, I think there is much more to be done,” she added. 

Ms. Burke said she is disheartened to see how many SHS students throwing trash in the recycling bins. “As soon as you throw trash in the recycle bins, the whole thing becomes trash.” 

“I don’t think we have enough discussion in the classroom about environmental issues,” Pototsky said.

“We need more education for everyday folks to understand what can and cannot be recycled with plastic and also to make a little bit smarter consumer choices in terms of what they are buying and what they do with it,” she added.

“If done right, this [treaty] could give the world a real chance to both beat plastic pollution and further the Sustainable Development Goals,” said Claire Arkin, Global Communications Lead at Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives.

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