Climate-crisis-fueled storms have hit New Zealand hard this year. In January, we suffered unprecedented extreme weather and flooding, followed by Cyclone Gabrielle in February – the worst storm in 55 years—which triggered a national state of emergency. In total, we had 5.5 times more rain than Auckland summers typically receive.
In the aftermath, we saw firsthand one of the causes of the climate crisis: single-use plastic. Te Wai Ōrea, a popular Auckland park, was covered with single-use plastic pollution.
Each stage in the lifecycle of plastic, from production to disposal, fuels the climate crisis – 99% of plastics are made from fossil fuels, and corporations keep making more. According to the Minderoo Foundation, annual greenhouse gas emissions from single-use plastics in 2021 exceeded the total annual emissions of the United Kingdom.
I am tangata whenua (indigenous to Aotearoa New Zealand) and tangata Moana (indigenous to the Pacific). What I call home is more ocean than it is land, and this ocean is our livelihood. It provides our traditional diet and is a rich source of the stories of our existence. Each Pacific island nation ties to the next through our ancestors’ great migration across the ocean by their navigational skills.
On the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, heavy rainfall floods the waterways and plastic waste hits the beaches and the waters where locals spend a good chunk of their lives, where they fish and gather food. And every time, they clean up that trash. No one wants to see pollution in places that they have held sacred for many generations.
Communities on the frontlines of any part of the plastic lifecycle, from oil extraction to trash dumps and everywhere in between, are hit with a trifecta of injustice: plastic pollution, social injustice, and the climate crisis. The plastic deluge that is left after every climate-crisis-fueled storm only reinforces this point.
Right now, nothing is being done ‘upstream’ to stem the flow of plastic so ‘downstream’ action – as effective as an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff – is all that local communities can do.
In Paris this month, governments from all over the world will meet to continue negotiating a Global Plastics Treaty—a once-in-a generation opportunity. An effective treaty must reduce plastic production and prioritize protecting biodiversity, safeguarding the climate and ensuring a just transition to a low-carbon, reuse-based economy.
Instead, big consumer goods companies, in league with the fossil fuel industry, make more and more plastic, reaping the profits while disregarding the cost and damages to the climate, environment and people.
This is where we draw a line in the sand – a treaty that does not stop runaway plastic production and use is bound to fail.
Consider the Cook Islands, where my mother’s parents were raised and married. The way of life has been transformed from a traditional one of circularity and living gently with the land, to one where consumer products – much of it in plastic packaging – have been pushed upon our people since colonisation.
The islands, surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, are now filling up with so much plastic that some might reluctantly feel there are just two options, burn it or bury it. Burning would accelerate the climate crisis and rising sea levels, and there is no land on the islands for bottomless landfills.
Coca-Cola, the world’s worst plastic polluter for five years now according to the Break Free from Plastic brand audits, sells their products in plastic bottles in small island nations without any recycling infrastructure or product stewardship. Coke sells over 100 billion bottles each year and is one of the wealthiest fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) brands in the world, yet its single-use plastic packaging wreaks havoc on the environment.
In the Global South, single-use sachets that contain only enough product for one serving from consumer goods conglomerates like Unilever and Nestle, flood some regions, especially during the regular typhoon season. In 2020, the CEO of Unilever expressed his interest stop selling sachets, yet, since then, Unilever has lobbied against sachet bans in India, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka.
The treaty negotiations so far have seen New Zealand push for an ambitious position that will keep oil and gas in the ground, stop the relentless production and use of plastic, and ensure a just transition to a low-carbon, zero-waste economy with leadership and expertise from indigenous and most affected communities. In the next round of talks, we need to lift the ambitions of other member states.
My ancestors shared a deep connection with Papatūānuku (our Earth mother) and our well-being is interdependent. We don’t see ourselves as being separate from nature. This indigenous worldview can lead treaty negotiations, creating systems that are less demanding of our planet and value nature over profit.
A Global Plastics Treaty can stop plastic production at the source and deliver a cleaner, safer planet for us and future generations. Governments need to step up to this moment and not let it go to waste.
Call on the NZ Government to ban unnecessary single-use plastic bottles* in NZ, and to incentivise reusable and refillable alternatives.