When I was an International Relations student, I enjoyed telling people that I was on my way to my Politics of Hazardous Technologies lecture, because there was a 95% chance that it was more interesting than the lecture they were headed to. Global treaties were a recurring theme in that particular course, as we looked at how the world had struggled against nuclear proliferation, CFCs, or landmines.
Plastic was not on the agenda at the time, but if you were taking that course now, it would be. In the twenty years since then, plastic production has skyrocketed. Some of that represents progress of a sort, where it entails lower income countries gaining access to consumer goods for the first time.
Most of it isn’t progress. With oil prices low and new plastics cheaper than recycling, plastic has become the preferred option for big companies. Deposit schemes for glass bottles have disappeared as disposable plastics take over. Single-use plastic packaging replaces paper plates and boxes. Things that never used to come wrapped now do. And plastic has crept into new sectors in a big way, from construction to clothing to furniture.
As a non-biodegradeable material, there is no good way to deal with this plastic. It overwhelms recycling facilities. Some of it is burned, some buried. Some escapes into nature, where it pollutes land and water. Some of it clogs rivers and wetlands, and more plastic spirals in the oceans and washes up on beaches. This waste plastic does not respect borders, so waste dumped in one part of the world drifts ashore elsewhere. Old unjust power relationships are reinforced as some countries are expected to clean up after richer colonial powers. Plastic has become a global problem, in need of global solutions.
That’s why there is a growing conversation about a global plastic treaty, and it will take a step forward next week at a UN environment assembly held in Nairobi, Kenya. The first discussions will be held on how to formulate such a treaty, with three different competing resolutions.
One has been brought by India, and calls for voluntary controls on single-use plastic. A broader proposal comes from Japan and partners, focusing on ocean plastic in particular.
The most ambitious resolution has been tabled jointly by Rwanda and Peru. It sets the parameters of a potential treaty very wide, looking at production as well as disposal, land as well as sea. “There is an urgent need for action throughout the entire plastics life cycle”, it reads, opening the door to more circular economy approaches. This is the one to watch – not just in its ambition, but also because co-sponsors include the EU and the UK, as well as some true global leaders on plastic such as Senegal and Kenya.
Rwanda itself is among those leaders. Plastic bags have been banned since 2008, and that includes the manufacture, use and importing of plastic bags. In 2019 Rwanda became the first African country to ban single-use plastics. Peru began the phase out of single use plastics around the same time, with tight restrictions on where and when plastics can be used. These are countries that are walking the walk on plastic.
A treaty will not be easy to negotiate. Even though the world is united against single use plastics – 75% of the world’s population support bans, apparently – there will be opposition. We’re dealing with the fossil fuel industry, the same companies that wield such influence against climate action. Many countries that talk about plastic, including Britain, act with no sense of urgency and there’s a powerful pro-plastic lobby. Corporations such as Coca-Cola and Nestle make showy public declarations about reducing plastic, while other arms of the business quietly lobby against regulation.
A global plastic treaty will be a long fight, against deeply entrenched interests. There will be opportunities to support it and advocate for it. For now, we’ll have to watch what happens in Nairobi next week – see WWF and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s UN Plastic Treaty site for updates.