Solving the plastic crisis is urgent. An estimated 11 million metric tons of plastic enter our oceans each year. That’s a garbage truck and a half of plastic every minute of every day. If we delay dramatic action by just five years, an additional 80 million metric tons of plastic will end up in the ocean by 2040 (250 Empire State Buildings worth of trash). Without action, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish, by weight.
That won’t just mean more beached whales with stomachs full of plastic bags; the human consequences will be extreme, too. Healthy ocean ecosystems absorb CO2. A dead ocean has dire consequences for the climate. Plastic already has been found in the air, in the rain, in our bodies and in our food supply.
That’s why, in March, the Ocean Plastics Leadership Network, together with WWF and Greenpeace, led the first of four dialogue sessions. One hundred and forty organizations from 34 countries representing all the main stakeholders attended the two-day virtual event. The aim was to deepen understanding and build capacity for a Global Plastics Treaty.
With industry, government, activists and waste pickers given a seat at the table and an opportunity for constructive discussion, we were able to learn quite a bit.
1. 100 countries support an ambitious treaty
While support for a global plastics treaty is growing, the window to make sure it happens is closing. In eight short months the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA) will decide whether to start negotiations on such a treaty at UNEA 5.2 in Nairobi. It’s essential that work begins on a treaty that is ambitious enough to match the scale and urgency of the problem, and that it’s agreed upon in record time.
If we delay dramatic action by just 5 years, an additional 80 million metric tons of plastic will end up in the ocean by 2040.
The good news is that recent events indicate that approval for moving ahead with a plastics treaty is likely. One hundred countries already have declared their support. Russia came out in favor of a treaty in February. Australia signaled its support in March. The United States has not yet come out in support of a global treaty, but nearly 1 million Americans have joined the call for a treaty and the Biden administration is reviewing the issue.
Even more remarkable — and hopeful — is that a number of stakeholders who traditionally have been on opposing sides of various environmental debates agree that a formal treaty to counter widespread plastic pollution is necessary.
2. Sticking points remain. We’re not quite there yet
The first step in the process is for governments to agree on a mandate for negotiation. Questions such as, "Will the treaty be voluntary or binding?" and "Will the treaty address the full life cycle of plastics or marine pollution only?" are the first big decisions that need to be made. While there is significant agreement on many components of the treaty, such as harmonization of standards, a unified global reporting structure, environmental monitoring and the structure of the treaty, potential sticking points will need to be addressed.
There is potential for many requirements, standards, obligations, restrictions and even bans. Virgin reduction caps are also being discussed. NGOs are largely aligned on goals and scope, but many are still developing their thinking on the best mechanisms to get there. Industry perspectives are more diverse, as companies have different interests and concerns based on where they sit in the plastic supply chain.
3. Industry and environmental groups are outpacing governments on solutions
Government efforts, led by the Nordic states and a coalition among Germany, Ghana, Ecuador and Vietnam, are following traditional U.N. Treaty protocol to discuss the key questions mentioned above.
While the U.N. is deep in these discussions, we’ve already seen significant progress from both industry and environmental groups. For example, environmental groups have continued to push aggressive Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) bills both here in the U.S. and abroad. Nine statehouses are in negotiations to be the first state in the U.S. to pass such legislation. Additionally, environmental groups continue to advance reuse and refill models that they believe are essential to shift the culture away from a reliance on single use plastics.
[Interested in learning more about the Accelerating a Global Plastics Treaty? Register for Circularity 21, where Dave Ford will be part of a panel with Greenpeace, WWF and Nestlé focused on this question: Why do we need a global treaty for plastics and what is the business case for advancing one?]
Companies have been active, too. Walmart, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Keurig Dr. Pepper, Unilever, P&G, and many other major consumer packaged goods companies have announced goals to reduce their use of virgin plastic. While the scale of these initiatives doesn’t always match the size of the problem yet, tackling source reduction aligns with what many activists want included in a global treaty.
Finally, WWF launched ReSource: Plastic, a first-of-its-kind supply chain transparency initiative, last year. For the kickoff, five of the world’s biggest companies agreed to make their supply chain transparent. Initiatives such as this can demonstrate successful programs the U.N. could scale up to achieve global goals.
4. The world needs a solution framework to complement the U.N.’s efforts. Enter 'Breaking the Plastic Wave'
In organizing the Global Plastics Treaty Dialogues, we’ve seen so much good will from governments all over the world. But to truly solve the ocean plastics crisis, we’ll need more than good intentions. We’ll need a solution framework rooted in science alongside the U.N. process.
Pew and SYSTEMIQ’s Breaking the Plastic Wave report, published in 2020, presents just such a framework designed to reduce plastic in the oceans by 80 percent in the next 20 years. Environmental NGOs and industry might not agree with every one of the report’s eight points — reduce, substitute, design, scale up collection, double mechanical recycling, develop plastic-to-plastic conversion, dispose and reduce waste imports — but its approach offers a clear foundation for solving the issue.
For business leaders looking to get up to speed on the Global Plastics Treaty, we recommend studying the following three reports from environmental groups, industry and government to get a balanced view from different key stakeholder groups.
To truly solve the ocean plastics crisis, we’ll need more than good intentions. We’ll need a solution framework rooted in science alongside the U.N. process.
Environmental NGO groups voiced their support for a plastics treaty in a report from the Center for International Environmental Law, the Environment Investigation Agency, GAIA and Break Free From Plastic. On the government side, the Nordic Council of Ministers rolled out a 148-page report that provides a suggested framework for a future treaty. WWF, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and Boston Consulting Group laid out the business case for a global treaty, and 30 major companies have signed onto a "Business Call for a U.N. Treaty On Plastic Pollution," urging others to join them in advocating for an international response that aligns businesses and governments and offers a clear approach to addressing the plastic crisis.
Additionally, the Ocean Plastics Leadership Network, together with WWF and Greenpeace, will host the second of four Global Treaty Dialogues in our series July 28-29 in both hemispheres. We’re in the process of expanding these sessions and welcome the participation of all stakeholders in the ocean plastics crisis. More information can be found here.
We believe that tension equals progress, and that through these sessions stakeholders just might discover they are more closely aligned than they previously thought. It’s important that we spend the precious months before UNEA 5.2 fighting the battles that need to be fought, and not wasting time where there is already agreement. Join us. We don’t have time to lose.