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We can cut annual flow of plastic into the ocean by 80% in the next 20 years. The technology and will is there, but one important piece of the puzzle is missing — and the UN is hopeful they can pull it together.
Eleven million metric tonnes of
plastic waste enters the
ocean every year — a dump truck load per minute. According to a 2020
Pew/SYSTEMIQ report, Breaking the Plastic Wave,
business as usual will triple the annual flow of plastic into the ocean by 2040,
quadrupling current-day ocean plastic stocks.
We can cut annual flow of plastic into the ocean by 80 percent in the next 20
The technology and will is there, but one important piece of the puzzle is
Despite being a problem of global proportions, no universal treaty on addressing
plastic pollution exists. Standards and regulations vary by region, country,
state, and even municipality. Conventional wisdom viewed plastic as a materials
issue — and therefore, a waste issue. Then came Jenna
Jambeck's pivotal 2015
exposé on plastics, showcasing that waste management alone won't make a
negligible dent in curbing the plastic crisis.
Since 2015, various reactions from governments, companies, organizations and the
public coalesced around addressing the entire plastics value
It's only recently that this momentum has reached a critical mass — with
thousands of businesses, hundreds of countries, and millions of individuals
agreeing that a global treaty must unify momentum under one banner.
The pressure consumers have put on brands — along with education and nudging
from activists — galvanized meaningful action on part of companies, even those
whose bottom lines stand to
from a plastic treaty. More than 90 leading businesses and financial
institutions have called for a legally binding
treaty on plastic pollution. And
PepsiCo, Starbucks and
Unilever have issued a joint
statement calling for mandated
global rules for plastic, as well as reduction in virgin plastic production.
“The momentum around this issue has already triggered actions across all
stakeholder groups,” said Erin Simon, Head of Plastic Waste + Business at
the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). “What we
are looking for is a global treaty to continue to unify us around how we tackle
The world now understands how to slow the cogs and wheels of endless plastic
growth, Simon said, and divert the plastic-producing capital towards more
All of the pieces for a redemptive circular
exist now; they just need to fall in the right place. A global plastic treaty
will ensure they do.
Next week, the fifth UN Environment
Assembly (UNEA-5.2) meets in
Nairobi to strengthen international cooperation against the triple threats
of climate change, nature loss and
Topping the agenda is an aspiring international plastic treaty that, if
ratified, will be the first of its kind. Three plastic resolutions have been
proposed, with two frontrunners taking center stage.
– proposed by Rwanda and Peru with co-sponsoring from 54 member states
and the EU – seeks to create a legally binding global plastic treaty
addressing the entire lifecycle of plastic in both terrestrial and marine
– proposed by Japan and co-sponsored by four member states – focuses on
marine plastic pollution with an emphasis on downstream
An intergovernmental negotiating committee will be established to further flesh
out the nuts and bolts of whichever resolution is adopted. A detailed analysis
of the two treaties can be read
Generally speaking, the petrochemical sector wants a treaty focusing on waste
management. Environmental organizations favor one that regulates the whole
plastic value chain and a regulatory device similar to the Montreal
Protocol. A full lifecycle
approach proposed by the Rwanda-Peru treaty will have greater implications for
businesses, and member countries indicate they favor this approach over Japan’s
The road to a plastics treaty is paved with dialogue and lessons learned from
past international treaties. One platform of global dialogue allowing a wide
spectrum of opinion and debate is the Ocean Plastics Leadership
OPLN brokers multi-stakeholder discussions
on the issue of plastic. The organization has 140 members — including NGOs and
businesses such as
Unilever, WWF and more. OPLN
has initiated discussions on a plastic treaty in seven countries, with a goal of
expanding to 50 after UNEA-5.2.
OPLN focuses on inclusion, capacity and — most importantly — speed.
“We don’t have any time,” said OPLN founder Dave
“We need a treaty five years ago.”
Breaking the Plastic Wave gives the world about five years to address the
plastic crisis — a timeline dwarfed by the slow-moving, bureaucratic nature of
Nonetheless, both Ford and Simon are hopeful the world can get it right at
UNEA-5.2. Everyone wants a different system for how the world produces, consumes
and reclaims plastic. Taking on the challenge of single-use
has virtually unanimous agreement across all sectors; and there's enough
that a new plastic paradigm is likely to emerge from UNEA-5.2.
The fact that companies are lobbying for extended producer
and the American Chemistry Council
at least some form of treaty indicates the market is ready for a bold, unifying
move on homogenized circularity. Though corporations and countries differ in
nuances, there is multi-sector agreement that a treaty is necessary; and the
majority of UN member countries indicate support for a treaty covering both
upstream and downstream plastic activities.
This makes Simon hopeful that meaningful progress will be made at UNEA-5.2.
“If you start to align on understanding what we're all trying to drive for those
outcomes – even if you don't align on all the strategies and tactics – it
definitely sets us up for a better conversation and more progress,” she said.
Ford expects to see at least homogenized standards, language and reporting
come out of Nairobi — giving the world common language for how it talks about
“We need to all be speaking the same language in every corner of the earth about
this complicated, chaotic issue,” he said. “Right now, we don't even have a
unified global reporting body about how much waste is out there.”
Unified language will likely affect global operations and supply chains, Ford
said — as well as potentially level the playing field between companies and
countries that have made voluntary commitments, with those that haven't. He also
expects a treaty will make it a lot easier for companies to meet their
science-based waste-reduction targets.
A treaty that adopts universal language and slows the expansion of
problematic and unnecessary
production will be a tougher sell to some, and naturally has farther reaching
“That's where the heels are really dug in,” Ford said. “Is this going to be an
upstream treaty, a downstream treaty, or both? That's where we're going to
Creating a global plastics agreement will require uniform recycling standards
that produce consistent feedstocks for an effective circular economy. Right now,
brands must contend with 193 countries, each with different approaches to
plastic. This is no small hurdle for brands to navigate — and a global treaty,
Ford thinks, will be a great business case for global brands.
“I think that's a huge reason why so many of the global CPG companies in our
network are behind this,” he said.
Uniform standards will also be a huge incentive for regional and international
trade, Simon said. A plastic treaty is what's needed to create a stable platform
for companies to use their supply chain-building acumen to craft a robust market
for circular materials — a market that doesn’t currently exist at the needed
“I'm hopeful,” she said. “We've seen so much happen in such a short period of
time … We have all of the right people at the table, and we're heading in the
UNEA-5 begins Monday and will conclude March 2.
Published Feb 25, 2022 1pm EST / 10am PST / 6pm GMT / 7pm CET
Christian is a writer, photographer, filmmaker, and outdoor junkie obsessed with the intersectionality between people and planet. He partners with brands and organizations with social and environmental impact at their core, assisting them in telling stories that change the world.