An end to plastic pollution

By Robert McLachlan

This week the climate news has all been COP27, and as usual, it sounds discouraging, with delegates staying up all night wrangling over words, a process in which ‘phasing out fossil fuels’ gets progressively watered down to the (virtually meaningless) ‘phasing down unabated coal’.

So it was inspiring to hear about a different approach being taken for another challenging global pollution problem, plastic, in a talk by Massey University’s Trisia Farrelly. Soon she will be part of the first UN talks to draft an Internationally Binding Instrument to End Plastic Pollution. Just reaching this point – achieved in a UN vote on 2 March 2022 after several years of negotiations – is something of a triumph. The contrast with the Paris Agreement, which is not binding and which does not mention ending fossil fuel pollution, is striking.

One of the problems with plastic is growth.

Most of this plastic has ended up as waste.

The consequences are all too familiar.

Henderson Island, Pitcairn, SE Pacific Ocean. Source: Stuff.

The key point about the proposed agreement is that it aims to address the full life cycle of plastic pollution – from exploring for oil, extracting it, turning it into products, the health impact of those products on consumers, to disposal and remediation.

The United States is trying to form a coalition, perhaps including Japan and Australia, that would push for something weaker, something more like the Paris Agreement, in which each country is free to develop its own voluntary plan, and with its scope restricted to managing the final products.

However, a core determination of a group of 34 countries (not yet including New Zealand), the “High Ambition Coalition“, is that full lifecycle impacts can only be addressed by stopping the growth of plastic production at the source. By turning off the tap.

Their first goal is to “Restrain plastic consumption and production to sustainable levels“.


Further reading

Plastics and Climate, Center for International Environment Law.

Zero Waste to Zero Emissions, GAIA.

Landmark treaty on plastic pollution must put scientific evidence front and centre, Nature editorial.

Silva Filho, C.R., Velis, C.A. (2022). United Nations’ plastic pollution treaty pathway puts waste
and resources management sector at the centre of massive change.
Waste Management &
Research, 40(5), 487-489.

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