Piles of plastic waste at the Thilafushi waste disposal site.

Over 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic are estimated to have been produced since its invention. Image © Mohamed Abdulraheem/Shutterstock

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Treaty to end plastic pollution moves a step closer

Work is set to begin on ending plastic pollution around the world. 

Last week, 175 countries voted to start preparations for a new treaty aimed at regulating and controlling plastics, which are damaging ecosystems and environments globally.

After decades of polluting the air, sea and land, plastic is being put on notice.

The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) adopted a resolution calling for the end of plastic pollution, and to begin the process of putting together an international agreement that will control the production and disposal of the material in the future.

'Plastic pollution has grown into an epidemic,' says Espen Barth Eide, the president of the meeting. 'With today's resolution we are officially on track for a cure.'

Calls for such a treaty have been growing in recent years, with scientists and organisations from around the world advocating the need to get a handle on plastic. 

Dr Alex Bond, the Senior Curator in Charge of birds at the Museum, put his name to an open letter calling for the introduction of a plastics treaty. While he welcomes the steps taken towards it, he warns that it will not immediately solve our plastic problem.

'A plastics treaty will not solve all of our problems overnight,' says Alex. 'We need to look at how climate treaties have gone to see where this will likely go. For instance, the Kyoto protocol was a non-binding set of targets which came first, and it took almost 20 years for binding targets to be introduced. 

'I imagine we'll see something quite similar with plastics, and I'd like to see this treaty as the next building block in how we manage waste globally.'

Work to produce the treaty is now underway, with hopes that a draft will be completed by 2024. 

An egret stands amid plastic waste on a beach

Seabirds are one of the species most at risk from plastic pollution. Image © FCG/Shutterstock

What's the problem with plastic?

Plastic is everywhere. We carry it around in our clothes and phones, use it to store our food and drink, and even breathe it in. A 2017 study estimated that over 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced, increasing at a rate of around 300 million tonnes a year.

It's a far cry from the origins of plastic. What we generally refer to now as plastic are synthetic materials which are often made from hydrocarbons, but plastic is any material made from polymer chains.

Some of the earliest materials that can be considered plastic, such as rubber and shellac, have been used by people for millennia. Produced from animal and plant-derived materials, attempts to source alternatives led to the development of early artificial plastics in the mid-1800s, such as celluloid.

However, these materials still used organic materials such as cotton. Around 50 years later, the first truly synthetic plastic was invented by Leo Baekeland in 1907. This led to a variety of new materials, including Nylon, Perspex and Teflon, being created with applications across a wide range of industries.

However, the amount of plastic being produced was still relatively small, at least by today's standards. But as more applications were discovered, and cheaper plastics could be produced, demand rose significantly. This led to plastic waste becoming a serious issue.

In addition to the obvious waste being discarded, scientists have more recently discovered the hidden issue of microplastics. Non-biodegradable plastics continue to break down into smaller pieces, producing fragments that can be millimetres in size. 

While the health impacts are uncertain, some studies suggest they can block the digestive system, carry toxic chemicals, and may even break down into smaller nanoplastics that could enter the bloodstream.

Public awareness of plastic pollution has increased in recent years as the result of global initiatives as well as high-profile documentaries such as Blue Planet 2. This has now culminated in national governments voting to take action. 

Delegates at the UNEA conference celebrate after the resolution is adopted

A resolution to introduce a plastics treaty was adopted in Nairobi. Image © UNEP, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

What did the countries agree to do to tackle plastic pollution?

Under the resolution agreed in Nairobi, Kenya, by the UNEA, representatives of 175 nations agreed to begin the process of tackling plastic pollution through international law.

They established an intergovernmental negotiating committee, which is set to begin its work in the second half of 2022. Its aim is to produce a legally binding treaty on tackling plastic pollution from the design of plastics through their manufacture and eventually their disposal. 

This will involve helping countries develop national action plans to tackle plastic pollution, as well to specify how progress towards eliminating plastic pollution is progressing. The deliberations of the committee will also decide whether funding and scientific support mechanisms will be necessary to ensure all countries can meet their obligations under a potential treaty.

While the committee is many years from completing a draft treaty, let alone it then being implemented, there are hopes that it will eventually stop the worst impacts of plastic, ranging from washing up on the beaches of world heritage sites to affecting the health of seabirds.

But this will take quite some time.

'Even if we stopped all plastic production today, things are still going to get worse for the next 30 years before they get better,' Alex says. 'There's such a volume of plastic in the ocean that turning off the tap today will take some time before the impacts are seen.

'It will need to be supported with steps to secure gaps in waste management and stop exporting our waste to other countries. Finally, once all of that is complete, the remedial work will then need to take place to clean up the plastic that remains.'

In the meantime, Inger Andersen, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said that the two year wait until a draft is ready was not an excuse to stop work on plastic pollution.

She added, 'Today marks a triumph by planet Earth over single-use plastics. This is the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the Paris accord. It is an insurance policy for this generation and future ones, so they may live with plastic and not be doomed by it.'