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The Time for a Global Plastics Treaty Is Now

The Montreal Protocol phased out ozone-depleting chemicals. The international community should take a similar step against polluting plastics.

By , the zero-waste and plastics advisor for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives-Latin America and the Caribbean, and , the global communications lead at the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives.
Waste pickers scavenge for items at the Dandora garbage dump.
Waste pickers scavenge for items at the Dandora garbage dump.
Waste pickers scavenge for items at the Dandora garbage dump in Nairobi on Feb. 26. TONY KARUMBA/AFP via Getty Images

By the time world leaders gathered in Montreal in September 1987 to discuss the depletion of the ozone layer, the science was clear. The threats of the growing ozone hole over the Arctic, discovered just 13 years earlier, wouldn’t be limited to a bad sunburn. Something had to be done—and fast.

The Montreal Protocol—which phases out the production and use of nearly 100 man-made chemicals proven to deplete the ozone layer, such as hydrochlorofluorocarbons—has since been heralded as a model of successful international environmental policy. Since its ratification, the parties to the treaty have phased out 98 percent of ozone-depleting substances compared with 1990 levels; the ozone layer is projected to recover as soon as 2050. The protocol is expected to avoid up to 0.5 degrees Celsius of global warming by 2100—by far the most significant single contribution to the Paris climate goals thus far. Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan championed the Montreal Protocol as “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date.”

Now the international community has the chance to negotiate a similar agreement—to regulate plastic. The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) is convening in Nairobi this week to negotiate a mandate to develop a global plastics treaty. Even more so than in 1987, the science is crystal clear that now is the time to act. Study after study has painted a damning picture of plastic’s impact on human health and the environment. Plastic is filling up oceans and dump sites. It’s in our food, drinking water, air, and bodies. Governments must follow in the footsteps of the Montreal Protocol and create a binding treaty that covers the full life cycle of plastic and its impact on all environments.

By the time world leaders gathered in Montreal in September 1987 to discuss the depletion of the ozone layer, the science was clear. The threats of the growing ozone hole over the Arctic, discovered just 13 years earlier, wouldn’t be limited to a bad sunburn. Something had to be done—and fast.

The Montreal Protocol—which phases out the production and use of nearly 100 man-made chemicals proven to deplete the ozone layer, such as hydrochlorofluorocarbons—has since been heralded as a model of successful international environmental policy. Since its ratification, the parties to the treaty have phased out 98 percent of ozone-depleting substances compared with 1990 levels; the ozone layer is projected to recover as soon as 2050. The protocol is expected to avoid up to 0.5 degrees Celsius of global warming by 2100—by far the most significant single contribution to the Paris climate goals thus far. Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan championed the Montreal Protocol as “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date.”

Now the international community has the chance to negotiate a similar agreement—to regulate plastic. The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) is convening in Nairobi this week to negotiate a mandate to develop a global plastics treaty. Even more so than in 1987, the science is crystal clear that now is the time to act. Study after study has painted a damning picture of plastic’s impact on human health and the environment. Plastic is filling up oceans and dump sites. It’s in our food, drinking water, air, and bodies. Governments must follow in the footsteps of the Montreal Protocol and create a binding treaty that covers the full life cycle of plastic and its impact on all environments.

Plastic pollution is not just marine litter issue but a crisis that affects the planet on a devastating scale, from production to disposal. More than 99 percent of plastic is made from fossil fuels, and the production process emits other toxic chemicals. Once plastic hits the shelves, consumers are further exposed to its health hazards: There is growing scientific consensus that toxic chemicals in plastic packaging leak into food and drinks. Meanwhile, polluting plastic waste often ends up in dump sites, burned in incinerators, or shipped to other countries.

In recent years, the drum beat for a binding global plastics treaty has grown louder. A UNEA expert group first surfaced the idea in 2017. In the years since, it’s reached a growing consensus that the problem, though massive, can be addressed through legal instruments. But the treaty’s efficacy will depend on its scope: To be successful, it must cover the impacts of the entire plastics life cycle, from production to disposal.

The momentum for such a treaty is increasing. Rwanda and Peru have put forward a strong resolution that has gained the support of 60 countries. On Feb. 11, the United States, Canada, France, and South Korea also released brief statements calling for a treaty that covers the plastics life cycle. This is a stunning reversal for the United States, which stated it was unequivocally opposed to a plastics treaty at an expert group meeting in 2019. Even prominent members of the business community, such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, have thrown their weight behind a plastics treaty.

UNEA negotiations operate on a consensus-based system, so by the meeting’s close on March 2, all parties will hopefully have signed off on a final text. Given the international community’s outsized support for the core tenets of the Rwanda-Peru resolution, we are cautiously optimistic that the results will be a historic win on par with the Montreal Protocol.

But to be effective, a global plastics treaty should be binding. Plastic doesn’t respect national boundaries, and more and more of the stuff keeps washing up onshore. For example, between January and August 2020, the United States shipped 44,173 tons of plastic waste—the weight of almost 300 blue whales—to Latin American countries. The European Union, which has on one hand been a global leader in banning single-use plastics within its boundaries, is still shipping much of its waste to developing countries despite growing calls for accountability both from citizens and communities in the global south. ​​Plastic is piling up around the world; all countries should participate in a treaty so some are not treated as the dumping grounds for others.

This is a lesson learned the hard way in the global south, which includes the countries most affected by plastic pollution and where the cost of centralized waste management infrastructure is often prohibitive. For this reason, many parts of Latin America, Africa, and Asia have led the way in developing policies that reduce plastic production and waste. Chile, for example, passed groundbreaking legislation targeting single-use plastic food ware in May 2021. In Africa, almost every country has legislation aimed at reducing the production of plastic or regulating its disposal.

In practice, a binding agreement should include financial and technical support for every participating country to be able to comply. In a way, this could serve as climate reparations paid by the major plastic producers to those countries that are least responsible but often unjustly affected. The Montreal Protocol had a similar mechanism through the Multilateral Fund, which provides developing countries with funds and technical assistance to meet their treaty obligations. Notably, every U.S. administration has put money into the Multilateral Fund, even those otherwise hostile to international environmental agreements.

What remains to be seen is whether the international community will be willing to face the uncomfortable truth about plastic: We cannot just try to recycle it. We instead must also make drastically less of it. As people around the world started to demand clean energy, fossil fuel companies began to massively scale up the production of plastic to find more stable sources of revenue. Plastic production is expected to double by 2050, and emissions from plastic alone will take up between 10 and 13 percent of the world’s remaining carbon budget to meet a 1.5 degree Celsius target under the Paris Agreement. An international law that puts a cap on plastic production would not only beat the pollution crisis but could also help save the landmark agreement.

Unfortunately, attempts to weaken the mandate for a global plastics treaty are already underway. Japan has put forward a resolution that uses the long-discredited approach of treating the plastic crisis as primarily a waste management issue. In January, India also released an even less ambitious proposal that suggests the international community should pump the brakes on a plastics treaty. Both countries have nefarious reasons for holding up progress. India’s current government is very friendly to big business, and the country has a large petrochemical industry. Meanwhile, Japan is the second-largest plastic consumer and has used its influence in the Asia-Pacific region to install Japanese waste-to-energy projects through development finance despite fierce opposition from civil society.

The good news is these proposals have so far received very little support from the international community. But the tide could turn once delegates reach the negotiating table and the checkbooks come out. The plastics industry also seeks to disrupt negotiations from behind the scenes, instead pushing for failed approaches, such as so-called chemical recycling and plastic-to-fuel processes that only serve to enable continued production. Civil society will be watching closely to hold countries accountable to their stated commitments, especially those with the highest plastic footprints, such as the United States and Canada. Developing and previously colonized countries must also stop the import and use of most plastics; their communities are the ones that suffer the highest impacts of plastic waste.

This week, delegates from around the world have the chance to take decisive action and prove that international diplomacy is still effective. A global plastics treaty has the potential to stand in contrast to last year’s United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland, where (once again) hopes were dashed as national climate commitments failed to meet the urgency of the crisis. Many global citizens, especially the youth, have begun to despair that international policy isn’t living up to its promise to deliver a better future for the next generation. We hope the UNEA will show the world that the international legal system can come together and deliver in a time of great need.

Alejandra Parra is the zero-waste and plastics advisor for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives-Latin America and the Caribbean. She is a biologist specializing in natural resource management with a master’s degree in planning and has 20 years of experience as an environmental advocate. She is based in Chile.

Claire Arkin is the global communications lead at the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. She has worked in social justice communications and campaigning for the past decade.

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