EletiofeThis Treaty Could Stop Plastic Pollution—or Doom the Earth...

This Treaty Could Stop Plastic Pollution—or Doom the Earth to Drown in It

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Given the ceaseless procession of disasters this summer—from heat domes to hurricanes to the fiery destruction of Lahaina—the slow-motion disaster of plastic pollution may not be top of mind. But the United Nations recently released a “zero draft,” or the principles under consideration, of what could become one of the most consequential treaties ever written: “the international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment.” 

It gets overshadowed by climate change, but plastic pollution has grown into a full-tilt emergency that’s intimately linked with planetary warming. Humanity is now churning out a trillion pounds of these polymers a year, a carbon-intensive process because plastic is made of fossil fuels. Production is expected to triple by the year 2060. “It is well established that our global plastic pollution crisis is also contributing to our global climate crisis, and the increasing shift towards investing into plastic production over the coming decades by the petrochemical industry is a great concern,” says Nick Mallos, the Ocean Conservancy’s vice president of conservation, who focuses on ocean plastics and has been involved in the negotiations.

The recycling rate in the United States is now 5 percent—an abject failure, and an effort that the plastic industry always knew was going to be ineffective. Instead, the vast majority of plastic is landfilled, incinerated, or escapes into the environment. Microplastics shed from everyday objects like clothing and broken-down bottles and bags. Now, these tiny particles have corrupted our bodies and every corner of the planet, from the deepest oceans to the highest mountains.

The draft treaty is a menu of interventions that are on the table during the UN’s negotiations, which are expected to extend through 2024 and involve experts and representatives from about 150 countries. So this document is far from a final product. It lists two possible objectives: either “to protect human health and the environment from plastic pollution” or “to end plastic pollution” in a bid to do the same. The second is more ambitious, while the first is less definitive.

Expect such distinctions to grow contentious. “The negotiations are quite polarized right now,” says David Azoulay, director of environmental health at the Center for International Environmental Law, which is participating in the talks. “There’s a larger group of countries that actually are looking for ambition. There is a smaller number of countries that are hell-bent on preventing this treaty from delivering on the promises under the mandate that was given to end plastic pollution throughout its lifecycle.” Those promises mean tackling the material’s journey from manufacture to disposal, not just how it leaks into the environment after it’s trashed.

Negotiators are concerned that this treaty could go the way of the Paris Agreement, in which countries set a planet-wide goal of keeping temperatures from rising no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, but were allowed to set their own targets for reducing emissions. Nations that haven’t met these targets may get publicly shamed, but not dragged in front of an international court. And if nations do implement strict limits, polluting industries can just move elsewhere.

Similarly, the plastics treaty could allow countries to set their own goals for reducing production. “Worst-case scenario, if consensus can’t be reached, there’s a risk that we get a watered-down, fully voluntary agreement that’s left to member states to implement—or the negotiations can be extended for years,” says Mallos. He thinks the treaty should set specific targets that reduce production by volume or percentage. For example, the Ocean Conservancy is calling to halve the manufacture of single-use plastics by the year 2050, at a minimum.

It’s also important to keep in mind that plastic is a toxic material made of chemicals that themselves need regulation. The polymer PVC is especially nasty, as are its component chemicals. (The train that derailed in Ohio in February was carrying vinyl chloride—which is turned into polyvinyl chloride—which is associated with lymphoma, leukemia, and other cancers, according to the US National Cancer Institute.) “More than 13,000 chemicals are associated with plastics, around a quarter of which have been categorized as hazardous,” says Melanie Bergmann, a plastics researcher at the Alfred Wegener Institute, who’s attending the negotiations. “This diversity in the chemical composition of plastic products is one of several reasons that prevent safe circularity, and it needs to be addressed urgently.”

Bergmann and other scientists have called for the treaty to address these component chemicals—for instance, by phasing out particularly toxic ones. The zero draft presents different techniques for eliminating individual chemicals or whole groups of them. “We are happy that the draft, in the various options, does acknowledge the importance of chemicals and the impacts of chemicals in managing plastics,” says Vito Buonsante, technical and policy adviser at the International Pollutants Elimination Network, who is attending the negotiations. “That is a recognition of a bit more maturity in the understanding of what are plastics.” 

Microplastics, too, make a number of appearances in the draft. Scientists define these as bits smaller than 5 millimeters—about the width of a pencil eraser. The document acknowledges the problems they cause, and it has options for eliminating “intentionally added microplastics,” like microbeads in face washes. But “secondary microplastics,” the kind that break down from larger bottles and bags, remain a massively complicated problem to fix. They flush into the environment in all kinds of ways, from washing machine wastewater to highway runoff. (Particulates shear off car tires and wash into rivers and kill fish.) 

“The zero draft didn’t go far enough when it comes to secondary microplastics,” says Mallos. “We very much hope there’ll be more specifics added about preventing these kinds of microplastics, since they do represent the vast majority of the microplastics we’re finding in the ocean and the environment.”

The draft also lays out options for better managing reuse and refill schemes, while still promoting higher recycling rates. Expect that to be another sticking point as the negotiations unfold: Over the last few decades, the plastics industry has pushed recycling as an excuse to make exponentially more plastic, or hyped alternatives like bio-based plastics made from plants. (A representative from the Plastics Industry Association did not respond to WIRED’s requests for comment on the zero draft treaty.)

But if recycling actually worked as intended, they wouldn’t have to make so much more virgin material—we could keep the existing stuff in circulation. That’s why for pollution experts, the ultimate goal for these negotiations will be putting a cap on plastic creation. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to right the ship and chart a course toward a future where we’re not drowning in plastics,” says Mallos. “The health of our ocean and our human lives will be dependent on it.”

For now, Azoulay hails the zero draft as a step in the right direction. “The draft still includes options for having a completely voluntary and possibly useless instrument, but it also contains possibly strong measures around reducing production, around getting toxics out of the process,” he says. “I look back a few years ago, when we started discussing this issue at the international level, and this was unthinkable. This draft doesn’t say much about what the final treaty will look like, but it does say a lot about how the global community has acknowledged what the problem is.”

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