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Global Plastics Treaty

by John Hocevar

August 20, 2021

We need an ambitious, binding global treaty that will keep plastic out of nature, of course, but will also address other impacts of plastic production, use, and disposal, such as human health, climate change, and environmental justice.

© Tim Aubry / Greenpeace

In February, the United Nations will decide whether to begin developing a global plastic treaty. Nearly everyone thinks this is a good idea, so I am confident it will happen. The USA was against the treaty while Trump was in office, and the Biden Administration has yet to take a public position. They say they are working on it, which is good, I guess. But what’s so complicated about saying we support developing a treaty to tackle plastic?

The important question, though, isn’t whether the US will support a treaty, because that seems almost inevitable at this point. What matters at this stage is what kind of treaty the US says it wants the UN to develop. We need an ambitious, binding global treaty that will keep plastic out of nature, of course, but will also address other impacts of plastic production, use, and disposal, such as human health, climate change, and environmental justice.

We need to tackle this problem at the source, and that means reducing plastic production. An effective treaty will move us away from throwaway plastic, and incentivize the shift to reuse, refill, and package free approaches.

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The good news is that the international community has proven its ability to act quickly when it wants to. Scientists published their discovery in May 1985 that chemicals in refrigerants called CFCs were creating a massive hole in the ozone layer, and if we didn’t do something it was going to be very, very bad. Just over two years later, the Montreal Protocol was adopted, banning most CFCs.

DDT is a more cautionary tale. In 1948, the creator of DDT was awarded the Nobel prize. It took 20 years for scientists to begin to understand the implications of DDT’s effects on not just mosquitos but all living things. Rachel Carson sounded the alarm in 1968 with Silent Spring, a book many credit with launching the modern environmental movement. But it took another 36 years before the Stockholm Convention finally banned DDT. That was a disastrous delay for wildlife, with species such as bald eagles, golden eagles, and white pelicans driven to the brink of extinction. DDT is very long lasting, so those chemicals are still killing wildlife today long after it has been banned.

There were segments of industry that lobbied against both of these treaties, claiming that their products were beneficial for the environment and that banning or restricting them would do more harm than good. I suppose it is good to see the American Chemical Council coming out in support of a treaty this year, but if it wasn’t for opposition from the petrochemical lobby we would already be into our second year of negotiations. This delay will cost lives and further harm ecological systems that are already approaching a breaking point.

Ultimately, whether we end up with the kind of treaty we need or not, and whether we get it done quickly or let the process drag on for years, is up to all of us.

 

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John Hocevar

By John Hocevar

An accomplished campaigner, explorer, and marine biologist, John has helped win several major victories for marine conservation since becoming the director of Greenpeace's oceans campaign in 2004.

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