The United Nations has set its sights on plastics, with a resolution to ultimately end plastic pollution passed by 175 countries. The resolution establishes a committee that’s planning to complete a draft for a legally binding agreement by the end of 2024.
The agreement will consider the full life cycle of plastics: from production (which currently mostly uses fossil fuels) through to use and disposal.
Roughly 11 million tonnes of plastic currently flows into the oceans each year.
“Ocean plastic pollution is a key issue facing our society because it is – literally – choking our marine life,” says Dr Charlene Trestrail, a researcher in ecotoxicology at RMIT University.
“A wide range of animals can become entangled in plastic waste, which limits their ability to move and feed. Additionally, scientists have an ever-growing list of animals that eat plastic – everything from whales and seabirds, to fish and oysters.”
Professor Bronwyn Gillanders, head of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Adelaide, says that according to some estimates, “around 80% of all the debris that is actually found on the ocean is plastic”.
Trestrail says the ocean gets particular attention as the subject of plastic pollution, because plastic can easily fall out of waste management systems and end up in the sea.
“We might think that we’re recycling them, or we might think that we’re doing the right thing and putting them in the bin,” she says. “But along that transport chain, they can escape because they’re really lightweight. They easily move off the land into rivers and oceans. The ocean ends up being the ultimate resting place for a lot of escaped plastic.”
“Everywhere you look – whether in the ocean, whether it’s in the ice – they seem to be finding microplastics in pretty much everything,” says Gillanders. Clothing and fabric containing plastic is a particularly insidious source – as it’s washed, tiny pieces of plastic get into waterways.
The resolution also proposes that more emphasis on recycling and designing products with end of life in mind is a key way to reduce plastic pollution. According to a UN Environment Program report, plastics entering the ocean could be reduced by more than 80%, and governments could save US$70 billion, by 2040 from a shift to a circular economy.
Such a shift could also result in a 25% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and create 700,000 jobs, mostly in the global south.
The World Wildlife Fund is describing the UN’s proposal as “one of the world’s most ambitious environmental actions since the 1989 Montreal Protocol, which effectively phased out ozone-depleting substances”.
Could this treaty shrink plastic pollution as much as the Montreal Protocol shrunk the hole in the ozone layer?
“It depends on what they come up with,” says Gillanders.
The resolution at the moment is only to develop a legally binding plan.
“They’ll need to specify what that will actually do,” says Gillanders.
“I know there’s talk within [the resolution] to promote sustainable production and consumption of plastics, and to be thinking about measures to reduce the plastic pollution and that sort of thing, but we need to see a lot more around the exact detail of the so-called instruments that they’re referring to.”
Important facets of an effective plan would include national reporting, periodic reviewing of progress, and more focus on the circular economy. The draft agreement is expected in just under three years’ time – at the end of 2024.
“We’ll keep an eye out for exactly what they come up with,” says Gillanders.
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.
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