This week in Uruguay, scientists, environmentalists, and government representatives—and, of course, lobbyists—are gathering to begin negotiations on a United Nations treaty on plastics. It’s only the start of talks, so we don’t know how they will shape up, but some of the bargaining chips on the table include production limits and phasing out particularly troublesome chemical components. A draft resolution released in March set the tone, acknowledging that “high and rapidly increasing levels of plastic pollution represent a serious environmental problem at a global scale, negatively impacting the environmental, social and economic dimensions of sustainable development.”
Which is a bureaucratic way of saying that plastic pollution—both macroplastics like bags and bottles, and microplastics like fibers from synthetic clothing—is a planetary catastrophe of the highest order, and one that’s getting exponentially worse. Humanity is now churning out a trillion pounds of plastic a year, and that’ll double by 2045. Only 9 percent of all the plastic ever produced has been recycled—and currently the United States is recycling just 5 percent of its plastic waste. The rest of it is either chucked into landfills or burned, or escapes into the environment. Wealthy nations also have a nasty habit of exporting their plastic waste to economically developing nations, where the stuff is often burned in open pits, poisoning surrounding communities. Plastics are also a major contributor of carbon emissions—they’re made of fossil fuels, after all.
Environmentalists and scientists who study pollution agree that the way to fix the plastic problem isn’t with more recycling, or with giant tubes that collect trash floating in the ocean, but by massively cutting its production. But while we don’t know what will eventually make it into the treaty—negotiations are expected to extend into 2024—don’t expect it to end the manufacturing of plastic the way a peace treaty would end a war. Instead, it could nudge humanity toward treating its debilitating addiction to polymers, by for instance targeting single-use plastics. “We’re not going to have a world without plastic—that’s not in the very foreseeable future,” says Deonie Allen, a plastics scientist at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. “However, the way we currently use it, that is a choice we can make today.”
Think of the unmitigated flow of plastic into the environment as a stream. If you want to treat the problem downstream, you remove the waste that’s already in the environment, the way a beach cleanup does. Farther upstream—literally so—you might deploy river barges to intercept plastic before it reaches the ocean. But the farthest upstream you can go is just not producing the plastic in the first place.
That’s why the treaty needs to include a limit on plastics production, an international team of scientists argued in the journal Science after the draft resolution was published. “What we’re really going to be pushing for is for mandatory and obligatory caps on production,” says Jane Patton, campaign manager of plastics and petrochemicals at the Center for International Environmental Law, who’s attending the talks. “We’re going to be pushing for changes in the way the plastics are produced, to eliminate toxic chemicals from the production and the supply chain.”
The draft resolution does indeed call for addressing the “full lifecycle” of plastic, meaning from production to disposal. But time will tell how successful negotiators will actually be in getting agreement on a cap. Ideally they’d agree to an internationally binding limit, but it’s also possible that individual countries will end up making their own commitments.