Global Push to End Plastic Pollution Must Take a Comprehensive Approach

A just, science-based UN treaty would raise accountability and tackle this major global issue

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Global Push to End Plastic Pollution Must Take a Comprehensive Approach
A white, medium-sized plastic bag lies on a thick lawn of grass. In the background is the Eiffel Tower, a number of lampposts, and three pedestrians passing by.
A plastic bag litters the grass in front of the Eiffel Tower. The work to develop a UN treaty on plastic pollution continues this month as governments and stakeholders gather in Paris to continue negotiations.
Leo Novel picture alliance via Getty Images

More than 11 million metric tons of plastic waste enter the ocean each year, a number that’s forecast to nearly triple by 2040 without a fast, urgent, and global effort to stem that flow. Even at current levels, ocean plastic pollution is threatening marine species and ecosystems, our climate, and communities around the world.

Later this month, governments and stakeholders will gather in Paris for the second session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution (INC-2), which is working to develop a global treaty to tackle the problem, as mandated by the United Nations Environment Assembly. Following INC-1—which was held 28 November-2 December 2022 in Uruguay and set the foundation for the treaty—this meeting will focus on potential elements for inclusion to provide a clear starting point for treaty negotiations. Three more INC sessions are planned to finalize development of the treaty by the end of 2024.

According to Pew’s 2020 report “Breaking the Plastic Wave,” plastic can alter habitats, harm wildlife, and damage ecosystem function and services. Plastic also affects human health, including through raw material extraction, production, chemical leakage from food packaging, and mismanaged waste. The report also found that humankind already has the solutions and technologies to reduce the annual flows of plastics into the ocean by 80% by 2040. Achieving that target reduction will require immediate and ambitious actions throughout the full life cycle of plastic—including its production, use, and end-of-life management, Pew found. In keeping with this “system change” approach, the treaty should include several priority areas:

  • Plastic reduction. “Breaking the Plastic Wave” found that, of all potential actions, reducing plastic production and consumption would yield the biggest reduction in plastic pollution, along with the greatest opportunity to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing plastic production should, therefore, be a priority measure in the treaty.
  • A full plastics life cycle approach. In seeking opportunities to reduce the flow of plastic waste into the environment, the treaty should examine the full life cycle of plastic and should include measures to reduce production and restrict the use of problematic and avoidable products and polymers. The treaty should also include measures encouraging that products and packaging be designed for circularity—meaning that they use less plastic in production, contain less complex and less toxic base chemicals, and/or are easier to reuse and recycle. And additional measures should seek to improve end-of-product-life management.
  • Microplastics reduction. Microplastics—pieces of plastic smaller than 5 millimeters in length—are a major source of plastic pollution, and addressing them should be among the treaty’s core obligations. The scope must be broad enough to include all known sources—such as tires, pellets, textiles, paint, geosynthetics (plastics used in construction and agriculture), and microplastic ingredients—and to allow for the addition of sources identified in the future. Sufficient measures to reduce microplastic emissions must be included.
  • National action plans. These would help countries transpose the obligations agreed within the treaty into national policies. Applications such as the Breaking the Plastic Wave Pathways Tool are available to help governments and stakeholders identify evidence-based solutions and tailored policy options that best suit them.
  • Reporting mechanisms. Because, as the saying goes, you can’t manage what you can’t measure, a robust national reporting mechanism will be key to ensuring effective implementation of the treaty. In an effort to accelerate wider adoption of plastic reporting and disclosure, Pew is working with the global environmental disclosure nonprofit CDP, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and the Minderoo Foundation to expand CDP’s global environmental disclosure system to include plastics. In April, the system opened for reporting on plastics for the first time. The INC could leverage and build on the work of such initiatives to develop effective and harmonized national reporting under the global treaty.
  • A just transition. Because a full system change will, by definition, alter business practices and some societal norms, the treaty should facilitate a just transition for affected workers, informal waste workers, and communities. Waste pickers around the world are responsible for 60% of plastic recycling but are left exposed to unsafe conditions and significant health risks. A treaty that obligates governments and businesses to improve waste collection, increase the material value of plastic through design, and proactively improve working conditions would benefit waste workers. Treaty negotiators should consult with the informal waste sector in developing this aspect of the treaty.
  • A key role for science. The technology and other solutions needed to prevent and address plastic pollution’s impacts on human health and the environment are evolving. The treaty—and its implementation—must therefore be grounded in scientific evidence. Pew recommends that the INC sessions establish an intergovernmental scientific body to provide independent research and guidance, including the development of any lists of problematic plastics or toxic chemicals; conduct periodic reviews of the latest science and available technologies; and support the strengthening of the treaty over time.

Pew welcomes the development of a global treaty to end plastic pollution and the ambitious timeline to have a treaty finalized by the end of 2024. As we found in “Breaking the Plastic Wave,” delaying action by five years would add an estimated 80 million metric tons of plastic waste, compounding risks to the health of humans and the environment. Treaty negotiations must be inclusive, science-based, and evidence-driven to ensure that the agreement will be effective in eliminating plastic pollution.

To achieve the needed system change, all sectors of society must play a role—including by holding UN delegates accountable as treaty negotiations proceed.

KerriLynn Miller is a manager and Sarah Baulch is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ preventing ocean plastics project.

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