Will the World Unite to Curb the Global Disaster That Is Plastic Pollution?

With negotiations coming up this fall, experts say that a proposed treaty must rein in production and consider the most vulnerable populations.
Huge expanse of plastic and garbage floats on water.
An island of plastic and other waste floats in the sea off Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo: Laurent Weyl/Panos Pictures/Redux

This November delegates from more than 170 nations will meet in Nairobi for the latest negotiations toward what experts describe as the most significant global environment pact since the 2015 Paris Accords on climate change. If an agreement is achieved, their work will culminate in the first global legally-binding treaty to address plastic pollution. Importantly, delegates have committed to considering the full life cycle of plastics—not just visible litter, but also emissions-spewing production and chemical-laden product design. A recent initial draft of the treaty provides a hint of its possible final form, but the ultimate ambition of its provisions remains uncertain.   

A successful and effective treaty could improve health outcomes for people, seabirds, and ocean ecosystems. The current amount of plastic on the planet weighs more than all land and sea animals combined. By 2050, experts forecast, 99 percent of pelagic birds will have consumed plastic; shearwaters and other petrels are especially vulnerable because of where and how they feed. What’s more, humans already ingest an estimated tens of thousands of microplastic particles every year, the health effects of which are largely unknown. (Early research suggests that ingesting microplastics may lead to a buildup of toxins in both humans and wildlife). Plastics are also a significant driver of climate change: Nearly all kinds of plastic are currently made from fossil fuels.

“We’re eating plastic, we’re breathing plastic, we’re drinking plastic,” says Melissa Valliant of the national advocacy organization Beyond Plastic. Despite this, plastic production is projected to expand by as much as three times by 2060. Within a decade, global carbon emissions from plastic production could outpace that of coal-fired power.

However, while plastic pollution is ubiquitous, some people are more affected by it than others. Plastic factories are usually built in lower-income areas, where they pollute the air. Marine debris washes up on shores of island nations that produce little of their own. Waste pickers in nations such as Indonesia and Senegal face toxic exposure while sorting recyclables shipped from the United States. Chemicals that leach into the food chain disproportionately affect Indigenous people who eat subsistence foods from the sea, including fish and seabirds.

“It’s people of lower socioeconomic status that are bearing the brunt, even if chemicals affect all of us using plastics,” says ecotoxicologist Bethanie Carney Almroth of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

Treaty talks so far have focused on how to reduce plastic production and waste while transitioning to more sustainable use of the material. Still being hammered out is whether the treaty’s provisions will emphasize making waste management more efficient, or prioritize efforts earlier in plastic’s lifecycle, such as capping production.

Experts say that an equitable treaty needs to do the latter, rather than putting the burden on lower-income countries to better manage the growing piles of waste shipped to them. “Let’s not think about plastic as a problem of waste,” says Vito Buonsante, policy advisor at the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN). “Let’s prevent that waste from happening.”

While the resolution kicking off the treaty talks commits to doing that, experts worry that the final provisions won’t go far enough to reduce plastic production. Sixty countries participating in the High Ambition Coalition, a group of nations that does not include the United States, are pushing for the end of plastic pollution by 2040. Other nations call for more moderate aspirations, such as increasing the lifespans of products made from plastic and making the material easier and safer to recycle. Meanwhile oil-rich nations, such as Saudi Arabia and Brazil, have been accused by observers of slowing down past negotiating sessions by focusing the debate on procedural rules rather than the content of the treaty, according to Politico.

Going into the November negotiations, the so-called "zero draft" does not commit to concrete aims—instead key provisions are framed as two options that outline either a more ambitious or moderate approach. For instance, the treaty’s overarching objective could either be to “end plastic pollution” or to “protect human health and the environment from plastic pollution.” Those are very different end goals.

Overall, Almroth was “pleasantly surprised” by the outline presented in the zero draft. “I thought the chair did a good job of representing the member states’ input,” she says. But it also has many shortcomings, she says, including fuzzy definitions and a need for more clarity on how to support communities that currently rely on plastic waste as sources of income. “Literally millions of people survive and make their living on plastic waste,” says Almroth, who is a member of the Scientists’ Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty (Scept). “If we're trying to reduce and eliminate plastic waste, those millions of people need to find another way to support their families.”

Given the unique challenges that many lower-income nations face, it’s essential that they have a seat at the negotiating table, experts say. But these nations are at a disadvantage when it comes to effectively participating in—or even attending—these talks. Traveling to Nairobi can be prohibitively expensive. What’s more, because research tends to focus on richer Western nations, low-income countries often lack comprehensive environmental data. To help, independent groups like IPEN and Scept are stepping up to provide funding, research support, and scientific advising to help elevate these nations’ voices and needs.

The treaty’s ultimate level of ambition will become clearer in the next year, with a target deadline to reach a deal by the end of 2024. Experts say that letting waste flow is simply untenable for today’s strained waste-management systems and environments already brimming with plastic. “We can’t do that,” Almroth says. “The planet can’t handle it. People can't handle it.”