Reducing Plastic Waste: A Global Effort to Minimize Consumption
, by Planet Green, 7 min reading time
, by Planet Green, 7 min reading time
The overwhelming magnitude of global waste seems impossible, however, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic.
World leaders, scientists, and advocates have embarked on a groundbreaking endeavor—the development of a global, legally binding treaty under the United Nations to combat plastic waste. The second round of negotiations, which concluded at the end of May, 2023 in Paris, has paved the way for an initial draft of the agreement that could make a positive change.
The potential impact of this treaty cannot be overstated. Although the specifics are yet to be finalized and will require months of negotiation, the agreement aims to go beyond mere fixes to recycling systems. Negotiators will explore a range of options, including placing a cap on overall plastic production, banning certain materials and products—particularly single-use plastics—and providing incentives for the growth of industries centered around reusable items. If successfully implemented, this treaty has the power to transform entire sectors of the global economy.
As with any global agreement, there will undoubtedly be challenges along the way, and some have already emerged. Certain countries, like Saudi Arabia and the US, are advocating for voluntary terms that would allow them to continue investing in their petrochemical industries, since plastic is derived from petrochemicals.
Nevertheless, the fact that these global discussions are taking place is a significant milestone and signifies a shift in the way waste is approached politically.
"There is a genuine willingness to address this problem," affirmed Erin Simon, Vice President and Head of Plastic Waste at the World Wildlife Fund. "We are witnessing unprecedented progress."
As the negotiations continue and the details unfold, it is crucial for all stakeholders to remain engaged and committed to crafting an ambitious and effective treaty. The global momentum behind these talks signifies a collective recognition of the urgent need to tackle the plastic waste crisis head-on. Despite collective challenges, there is hope that together, we can forge a sustainable future that preserves our planet for generations to come.
Here’s what a global plastic treaty could do, and why anti-waste advocates are so hopeful.
The plastic treaty will address the root cause of the issue at hand. Even if recycling were a resounding success, it would not provide a comprehensive solution to the plastic waste problem. The truth is, many items simply cannot be recycled, or they are not designed with recyclability in mind. To truly address the plastic problem, we must focus on reducing its production altogether.
Nicky Davies, Executive Director of the Plastic Solutions Fund, an organization that funds projects aimed at ending plastic pollution, emphasizes that the primary step is to "turn off the tap." In other words, we need to produce less plastic.
This is where the significance of the treaty lies. Unlike previous efforts, the agreement is designed to tackle the issue at its core—the design and production of plastics—rather than solely focusing on post-consumer waste management. Essentially, the treaty aims to address the entire life cycle of plastics.
What does this mean in practical terms?
One potential inclusion in the agreement could be an overall cap on plastic production. This would set a global target for reducing the production of new, virgin plastic, which does not incorporate any recycled content.
Such a target might mandate that, by a specified year, the annual production of plastic should not exceed the amount produced in a baseline year. This approach resembles the targets set to curtail fossil fuel production and combat climate change, but instead focuses on plastic polymers.
By setting ambitious targets and effectively limiting the production of new plastic, the treaty has the potential to revolutionize the way plastics are manufactured and utilized. It signifies a shift towards a more sustainable and circular economy, where the generation of plastic waste is significantly curtailed.
As negotiations progress and concrete measures are defined, it is crucial to remain attentive to the importance of reducing plastic production and embracing alternative, eco-friendly materials. Through collective global efforts and a commitment to change, we can pave the way for a future where plastics are produced and managed in a manner that respects our planet's finite resources and preserves the well-being of future generations.
This could mean the removal of items we use as a daily convenience.
Irrespective of whether the treaty explicitly imposes limits on plastic production, it is highly probable that it will include bans or restrictions on certain materials.
Specific chemicals used in plastics pose significant concerns and are likely to be targeted for bans. For instance, certain flame retardants have been linked to cancer and endocrine disruption, making plastics containing these additives difficult to recycle. Other additives and materials, such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and various forms of PFAS (commonly referred to as "forever chemicals"), are similarly hazardous to human health and ecosystems, or they impede recycling processes.
Additionally, the treaty may impose bans or restrictions on a range of problematic and commonly used products, particularly single-use items and packaging like cups and cutlery.
Carroll Muffett, President and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law, an environmental advocacy group, underscores the significance of these items.
“Packaging alone accounts for approximately 40 percent of all plastic waste, and nearly two-thirds of this waste originates from plastics with a lifespan of fewer than five years.”
Muffett emphasizes the importance of addressing these materials, stating, "These are materials that enter people's lives often unnoticed, and they have short useful lifespans measured in minutes, moments, or, at best, months.”
By targeting problematic chemicals and materials and addressing single-use items and packaging, the treaty holds the potential to make substantial strides in combating plastic waste. By reducing the usage of these items, we can significantly diminish the environmental impact associated with their production, usage, and disposal.
As negotiations continue and the treaty takes shape, it is imperative to recognize the critical role that bans and restrictions play in transitioning towards a more sustainable future. By embracing alternatives and adopting innovative solutions, we can bid farewell to the era of excessive plastic consumption and usher in a new era of responsible resource management and environmental stewardship.
According to researchers, the initial focus of bans or restrictions on single-use plastics should be on products that are most likely to escape into the environment, causing harm, and yet are relatively unnecessary. This includes takeaway containers, chip bags, balloons, cotton swabs, disposable e-cigarettes, and tea bags. Environmental organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), have compiled lists of products that should be prioritized by the treaty.
Moreover, the treaty may impose limitations on the use of specific types of micro-plastics. These tiny plastic particles are intentionally added to some products like face wash or unintentionally released by items such as car tires and clothing. These micro-plastics have been found virtually everywhere, from our blood and lungs to water bottles and Antarctic snow.
Restricting the use of such plastics is not an implausible idea. Several U.S. states, including New York and California, have already banned certain types of plastic bags. The U.S., Canada, the UK, and other countries have also prohibited the sale of personal care products, like shower gels, containing plastic "microbeads." Additionally, the European Union (EU), renowned for its stringent plastic regulations, has banned a wide range of single-use items from entering the market, including plastic cutlery and straws.
However, it is crucial to recognize that these bans are not universally applied, enforcement can be inconsistent, and they do not go far enough, according to experts. This is where the treaty can play a vital role.
By establishing global standards and regulations, the treaty can address the gaps in existing measures and ensure comprehensive and consistent actions against single-use plastics and micro-plastics. It offers an opportunity to harmonize efforts worldwide, raising the bar for plastic regulation and enforcement. Through international collaboration and a shared commitment to tackle the plastic crisis, we can pave the way for a cleaner and more sustainable future.
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