Plastics quickly became popular for their convenience and disposability. But now, there are anywhere from 15 to 51 trillion tons of plastic in the oceans, and plastic pollution is set to outweigh all fish in the oceans by 2050. The United Nations (UN) Environment Assembly has plans to meet in February and March 2022 to put together a global treaty that tackles our plastic crisis.
So far, most nations have agreed to participate, but it’s a daunting task ahead to determine the scope, timeline and details of such an unprecedented treaty. The Biden administration in the U.S. supports such a treaty — a shift from the attitudes under former president Donald Trump — but hasn’t shared specifics about what it wants included in the agreement.
In 2016, the U.S. produced more plastic waste than any other country globally, and it has remained a top polluter since. It’s estimated to currently sit as the No. 2 country for highest plastic pollution.
“Worldwide, at least 8.8 million metric tons of plastic waste enter the world’s oceans each year — the equivalent of dumping a garbage truck of plastic into the sea every minute,” says a recent study by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.
This study focuses on oceans, but plastics have reached every part of our planet, from remote island to the poles and everywhere in between.
In 2021, the UN released a report called Drowning in Plastics – Marine Litter and Plastic Waste Vital Graphics that notes only about 9% of plastics that are produced end up recycled. Another 12% are incinerated. The rest go to landfill or make their way into vulnerable ecosystems, often the oceans, where they don’t degrade.
Aside from filling up landfills and oceans, human dependency on plastics is worsening the climate crisis and its effects.
“At current levels, greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic lifecycle threaten the ability of the global community to keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C,” says a 2019 report by the Center for International Environmental Law. “With the petrochemical and plastic industries planning a massive expansion in production, the problem is on track to get much worse.”
The report continues to say that by 2050, plastic accumulation — if it continues as expected — may reach over 56 gigatons, or 10% to 13% of the remaining carbon budget.
The UN has previously noted the need for political action to handle the growing plastic production and waste. So from February 28 to March 2, the UN Environment Assembly will meet in Nairobi, Kenya to create a treaty framework, hammering out what will and won’t be included.
As reported by Mongabay, the assembly will primarily focus on two drafts: one that includes a more comprehensive approach for plastics, from production to waste management, and one that focuses on ocean pollution and plastic disposal.
The plastics industry is somewhat on board, although companies are working to shift the treaty in a way that still benefits them.
So far, the European Union and 48 countries have signed an agreement to create a plastics treaty. The U.S. has yet to sign the agreement but does plan to participate in the drafting of a treaty.