A Toothless Treaty Won’t Solve the Plastics Crisis

A Toothless Treaty Won’t Solve the Plastics Crisis
A sign reading “We demand a strong global plastics treaty” sits among plastic on a public art installation outside a United Nations conference on plastics, in Ottawa, Canada, April 23, 2024 (Canadian Press photo by Adrian Wyld via AP Images).

Negotiators of an international legally binding treaty on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment, just concluded their fourth session on April 30 in Ottawa, Canada. Some 2,500 delegates attended the latest round, including negotiators from over 160 countries as well as scientists, youth representatives, Indigenous groups, business lobbyists and observers. But with four rounds of talks now down and just one to go—in Busan, South Korea, in November—negotiators left Ottawa with no agreement on the scope of the future treaty nor any narrowing of options.

The global plastics pollution crisis desperately needs international cooperation and management, even as the material itself remains critical to fields like medicine, aeronautics and agriculture. While only 9 percent of global plastic is presently recycled, both global plastics consumption—much of it products with single or short-term uses—and global plastic waste are expected to triple by 2060. More broadly, an estimated 4,200 chemicals harmful to human and environmental health are currently used in plastics manufacturing, even as evidence mounts of the presence of plastic particles in human tissue, lungs, blood and placenta.

Because crude oil or gas is the feedstock for 99 percent of primary plastics today, the issue also has implications for efforts to tackle climate change. In 2019, the production of primary plastics accounted for 5.3 percent of total global emissions of greenhouse gases; by 2050 it is expected to consume 21 percent of the remaining global “carbon budget,” or the amount of carbon emissions that would keep average global temperature increases below 1.5 degrees Celsius, as calculated by climate scientists.

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