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Q&A: A step towards solving the plastic pollution crisis

  • Written by  Bryony Cottam
  • Published in Nature
Q&A: A step towards solving the plastic pollution crisis Chaiyapruek Youprasert/Shutterstock
05 May
2022
Professor Steve Fletcher, director of the Global Plastics Policy Centre at the University of Portsmouth, offers some insight into the plan for a new global plastic pollution treaty

On 2 March 2022, 175 countries signed a UN resolution to end plastic pollution, a move described as ‘the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the Paris Accord’ by executive director of the UN Environment Programme Inger Andersen. World leaders now have until the end of 2024 to negotiate and agree to a treaty that will tackle the global plastic-pollution crisis. Professor Steve Fletcher, director of the Global Plastics Policy Centre at the University of Portsmouth, explains what that work might involve.

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Why do we need an international treaty on plastic pollution?

We all know that plastic pollution is a global-scale problem. We have spent at least a decade putting in place policies to try to tackle it. These have often been fragmented and isolated, focusing on an individual product or a particular part of the plastics lifecycle. Even if individual countries each implement brilliant policies, it doesn’t solve the problems because the challenges are international in their nature. The Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee has been tasked with coming up with holistic policies that consider the needs of all countries and creating a step-change in how we manage plastic pollution, including trying to prevent it in the first place rather than just trying to clean it up.

What will the objectives of the treaty be?

We don’t know exactly what will be in the treaty yet, although we do know the negotiation guidelines that the committee has been given. One of the challenges will be to determine what the goal of the treaty will be, and when it needs to be achieved by.

How might the planned treaty help with the plastic-pollution crisis?

There are some really good things about this resolution. One is that it covers the entire plastics lifecycle. A lot of investment has been made in post-consumer solutions – things such as better recycling and better waste collection – but that only manages the problem. The general consensus is there’s going to be an emphasis on upstream interventions – dealing with plastic waste before it reaches the consumer. Obvious things like not using plastic in the first place, or only using plastic that can be recycled or that doesn’t contain toxic chemicals. Arguably, even oil extraction is in its scope because that’s part of the lifecycle of plastics as well. Another is that the agreement will be legally binding, which is really critical. There’s a strong school of thought that if it was voluntary in nature, international coordination and collaboration wouldn’t really work to solve the problem.

Why is this action being taken now?

We have governments all over the world working on strategies to end plastic pollution in their countries. In addition, there are businesses, NGOs, citizen groups and campaign bodies all taking action. Recent reports have illustrated the scale of the problem and there’s growing evidence of the harmful impact of plastic on human health. While many of the solutions to the plastics problem are already known, it will be a case of putting them in place in a strategically sensible way. So it feels like the obvious time to take that next step towards global action.

What will be the main challenges when it comes to agreeing a treaty?

The title of the resolution is to ‘end plastic pollution’. That’s a hugely challenging task. Even current models that assume the most ambitious and rapid transformation in how we use plastic and manage plastic waste only get us to a reduction in plastic pollution of about 80 per cent. To end plastic pollution entirely requires us to not only deliver a hugely ambitious set of policies and changes, but also to find new policies that take us from the remaining 20 per cent down to zero.

Another challenge is that different countries have different levels of capacity to deal with plastic waste and plastic pollution. In fact, there are quite a few parallels with the climate debate. These particularly surround finance, where the countries that have the least capacity to deal with it are the ones facing the brunt of plastic pollution.

Finally, the fossil fuel industry is being put under pressure to decarbonise energy production. This may lead to a push for more plastic production. We’re already seeing relentless growth, despite public and government appetite to take action on plastic pollution. In a way, this also illustrates why the global agreement process is so important, because it means that, for the first time, we have a shared agenda to tackle plastic pollution.

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