A few years ago, I had the privilege to peer review Breaking the plastic wave, a major report from Pew Charitable Trusts looking at pathways to stop oceanic plastic pollution. It was a sobering experience: the evidence showed that, on current trajectories, without action, the amount of plastic that gets into the ocean will nearly triple by 2040, to 29 million tonnes per year, which is equivalent to 50 kilogrammes of plastic for every metre of coastline worldwide. Worse, the government and industry commitments made by 2020 were expected to reduce this by only seven per cent, meaning we’d still see a near tripling of the burden inflicted on the marine environment in the next two decades. Even thorough, more systemic intervention wouldn’t prevent plastic pollution entirely, with five million tonnes of plastic still likely to be poured into the ocean each year.
‘Blue Planet II’ showed us the problem
Pretty depressing stuff, but it certainly brings home the need for an ambitious international approach to limit the damage. That damage, was, of course starkly highlighted by Sir David Attenborough in 2017’s ‘Blue Planet II’, with its images of hawksbill turtles caught in plastic sacks and baby albatrosses slowly starving to death as their parents mistook plastic bottle caps for food. Since then, countless academic studies and press stories have added to the evidence that we need do something fundamental about this problem and fast. And that is why it’s so significant that the UN is working on a global plastics treaty, the second round of negotiations for which is taking place in Paris this week.
By 2024, the intention is to have a draft legally binding UN treaty to end plastic pollution, with the primary aim of addressing the full lifecycle of plastics. The draft potential objectives for the treaty are:
- End plastic pollution; protect human health and the environment from its adverse effects throughout the lifecycle of plastic.
- Protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of plastic pollution throughout the lifecycle.
- Reduce the production, use and discharge of plastics across their lifecycle, including through the promotion of a circular plastics economy with a view to ending plastic pollution by X year and protecting human health and the environment from its adverse effect.
The treaty should be dealing with single use culture
Instinctively, these will all sound great to a public so rightly outraged by this problem. But look harder and they seem to suggest that plastic can be addressed in a vacuum. What about the adverse effects currently or potentially caused by alternatives to plastic? These are not referred to in the options paper considered ahead of the negotiations, which actively appears to promote simply swapping plastic for other materials. At one point, the document says the committee may want to promote economic instruments “to incentivize a reduction of plastic use and the adoption of sustainable alternatives”. Plastic reuse gets a welcome plug, but it makes no mention of moving away from single use culture in general.
This is a real problem. All the effort that goes into the treaty could lead to shifting impacts rather than eliminating them. As work for our Circular Economy Task Force has shown, the fundamental gamechanging approach that’s needed is one that ends throwaway culture. There is no ‘sustainable’ material that can be used without guilt as recklessly as we currently use plastic.
By some measures, alternatives could even be worse for the environment. An apparently innocuous paper bag, for instance, needs to be reused 43 times to have a lower carbon impact than the average plastic bag. In fact, we have shown that switching all consumption of plastic packaging in the UK on a like for like basis to other common packaging materials could almost triple the associated carbon emissions, from 1.7 billion tonnes CO2e to 4.8 billion tonnes CO2e. Imagine if that were replicated globally?
This isn’t to say that a global plastics treaty isn’t urgently needed or that we shouldn’t significantly reduce plastic use because there’s no better alternative. It is and we should. But, if we’re not careful, we’ll soon need global treaties for paper to deal with deforestation, for compostable plastics to address competition for arable land, for metal to reduce the impacts of mining, for glass for fear of dwindling silica sand resources, and so on and so on.
It would be far better for the negotiating countries to use the benefit of foresight now and make this a historic treaty, where we finally start to value all materials properly, putting an end to wasteful behaviour, rather than storing up new disasters for the future.