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25 November 2020updated 16 Sep 2021 4:50pm

Is there promise in a global plastics pact?

We need to transform the plastics economy.

By Steve Fletcher

An estimated 11 million metric tonnes of plastic enter the ocean each year. It is predicted that without meaningful action over the next 20 years, this number is set to almost triple to 29 million metric tonnes.

Meanwhile, combined current government and industry commitments will only reduce ocean plastic by 7 per cent by 2040 compared to business as usual. That is the conclusion of the recent Breaking the Plastic Wave report published by the Pew Charitable Trusts and Systemiq.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the issue as plastic personal protective equipment (PPE) has proven to be invaluable, but fears are growing about the environmental impact of our reliance on single-use plastics amid the health crisis.

Clearly, current commitments on plastic do not match the scale of the worsening global plastic problem. We urgently need a stronger policy response to better reflect the level of action required. There is room for optimism, though.

Recent modelling suggests that ocean plastic pollution could be reduced by more than 80 per cent using existing technology and solutions, if a range of measures are introduced ambitiously, globally and immediately.

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The critical challenge is that systemic change within the plastics economy is required on a global scale. Piecemeal policies and actions are insufficient to create the necessary changes in how plastics are produced, used and disposed. But is urgent and collective action on plastics possible?

There have been many calls for a global agreement on plastics, including most recently the Business Case for a UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution report, published in October 2020 by WWF, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the Boston Consulting Group. This received support from influential conglomerates including PepsiCo, the Coca-Cola Company, Nestlé and Unilever, who are among the world’s biggest plastic users.

Furthermore, it is anticipated that several countries will push for a global agreement on plastics at the forthcoming UN Environment Assembly in 2021. While a global agreement may sound enticing, how can we ensure that a global treaty results in necessary changes and measurable impact across all nations?

A global plastics agreement requires national commitment, both to develop the agreement and in due course to implement it. Yet at present, despite the global public outcry about plastic pollution, national level plastics policies are rare and those that do exist tend to focus on banning or taxing individual plastic items rather than focusing on systemic change in the plastics economy.

More positively, changes to the international transport of plastic waste have been agreed through the Basel Convention Plastic Waste Amendments, due to enter into force in January 2021. Importantly, there are no global agreements related to the sustainable consumption and production of plastic. Nor are there agreements on important issues such as limiting the use of plastics in products; reducing the range of plastic types used in everyday products to create improved conditions for recycling; supporting the universal separation and collection of plastic waste; nor for creating minimum specifications for recycled plastic content in new products.

In short, a global agreement should tackle plastic pollution at its source and promote a transition to a circular plastic economy. It should take plastic into account throughout its life cycle, rather than focusing on “downstream” solutions only. Ultimately, agreements that only cover waste management will never be an effective solution. The current policy mix will not “turn off the plastic tap”.

Agreeing the terms and focus of a global agreement on plastics will be a major diplomatic and scientific undertaking which may take many years, particularly in the current context of fragmented international relations. Even once agreed, it will take longer still for change on the ground to materialise. The success of existing environmentally focused global agreements has been mixed, which raises concerns that a future global agreement on plastics may not be as effective as hoped, and may direct political energy and resources from other more effective approaches.

Yet the underlying reality is that the challenges associated with unsustainable consumption and production of plastics are interconnected and global, requiring systemic transformation of the plastics economy. The extent to which this can be achieved without a global agreement is uncertain, but as a minimum, coordinated efforts are needed to start a global sustainable plastics transition. Behind any global approach is the need for high-quality evidence to inform national and private sector action.

Through our Revolution Plastics initiative, the University of Portsmouth is contributing to the sustainable plastics transition. Our world-leading research into plasticdigesting enzymes was recognised as the Times Higher Education STEM project of the year in 2019.

We are also contributing to the evidence base to inform policies and decisions across the plastics life cycle, for governments, scientists and businesses. For example, we are working with the G20 group of nations to identify policy options to reach net zero plastics entering the ocean by 2050. This is part of the G20 Osaka Blue Ocean Vision, endorsed by around 80 countries.

We are working with the food industry to develop more sustainable alternatives to plastic packaging; with cities in Europe, Africa and Asia to support enhanced plastic recycling capability; with the fashion industry to reduce its reliance on plastics; with citizens to map and tackle urban plastic pollution, and we are examining the effects of exposure to plastics on human health. We are dedicated to making our science matter and contribute to tackling some of the world’s most pressing problems. Only together can we take the action that will create a healthier world.

Steve Fletcher is professor of ocean policy and economy at the University of Portsmouth

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