Plastic pollution is a global crisis, and countries in the United Nations are considering an international treaty to take on the issue. But the biggest perpetrators seem uninterested in addressing the problem.
At a virtual convening of the UN’s working group focused on marine litter and microplastics last week, more than two-thirds of countries said they’re open to crafting a new agreement to curb plastic pollution, according to the Guardian. That includes countries in Europe, the Caribbean, Pacific islands, and Africa, indicating a broad coalition of polluters and those dealing with the impacts.
“The EU has been a leader in discussions so far, and there has also been strong support from Southeast Asia and other areas of the Global South,” John Hocevar, Greenpeace USA’s oceans campaign director, said in an email.
But notably, neither the U.S. nor the UK—the nations that a recent report found are the two biggest sources of plastic waste in the world—showed any interest in participating. Hocevar said Saudi Arabia hasn’t signaled interest either. That may indicate that the world’s top oil producers are worried about a potential treaty’s effect: The global oil industry has pivoted to plastic production in light of tanking fuel demand and increasing interest in phasing out of fossil-based energy.
Once president-elect Joe Biden enters the White House, he’s expected to join in this global effort. But even if none of these powerful players show support, a treaty is likely on the horizon though it remains to be seen what it will include.
“There is a lot of momentum at this point,” Hocevar said. “So the big question isn’t whether there will be a treaty, but whether it will include the kinds of measures that are urgently needed.”
Governments are taking more steps than ever to curb plastic pollution. At least 69 have issued complete or partial bans on plastic bags, and last year, 170 nations signed a UN pledge to significantly curb their output by the 2030. Corporations have also made all sorts of promises to rein plastic pollution. But despite all this, the world is still dumping more and more plastic onto the land and into the water each year, and without urgent action, that amount is set to grow tremendously. A global treaty could help fill in the gaps and hold back that rising tide.
A June report from organizations including Greenpeace laid out the requirements needed for an international agreement to be effective, including the creation of a universal strategy to track plastic pollution, policies to clamp down on harmful additives in plastic, and protections for poorer countries that have contributed less to plastic pollution and for which curbing pollution will be more costly. An international treaty should also rapidly wind down plastic production. That’s vital given that plastic products are used all around the world, and waste from them is popping up everywhere, even including uninhabitable Antarctica.
“Any meaningful effort to address plastic pollution needs to acknowledge the simple truth that we need to stop making and using so much throwaway plastic,” Hocevar said.