ANOTHER PERSPECTIVE: Negotiators must target production and consumption to curtail plastic pollution

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The Guardian

There is no data on global plastic pollution that is equivalent to the regular measurements of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. But as with greenhouse gases, the recent news has been nearly all bad. In 1950, worldwide production of plastics stood at 2m tons per year. In 2020, it was 367m tons (down from 368m the year before due to the coronavirus pandemic). An increase this enormous is hard to visualise. But the 8.8m tons of plastic waste that is estimated to enter the world’s marine environment each year is the equivalent of a rubbish truck filled with plastic being tipped into the sea every minute.

So the agreement struck by 173 countries at the UN environment assembly in Nairobi last week was a huge relief. At last, something is going to be done multilaterally about a problem that no government can solve on its own. Without the legally binding treaty that will be negotiated over the next two years, it was hard to see where progress would come from.

The announcement was only the beginning of a long and fraught process. The pollution and destruction of nature are material phenomena. As with cutting emissions (or failing to), fine words about plastics are no use unless they are accompanied by strong actions, including mechanisms to ensure reductions in consumption. Plastic pollution is closely linked to economic growth, and changing our way of life will not be simple. But as a statement of intent, and proof that multilateral cooperation to protect our shared environment is still possible, the agreement is more than welcome. Like global heating, plastic pollution is a matter of social justice issue as well as conservation, with people in poor countries suffering disproportionately.

As with emissions, the richest countries and companies are the worst culprits. Research for the US federal government last year found that Americans now generate about 42m tonnes of plastic waste a year – more than all European Union member countries combined. Another report found that 20 companies are responsible for producing 55% of the world’s pla stic waste. Some are the same companies responsible for fossil fuel production, since plastics are made from petrochemicals.

Efforts to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and television footage of plastic waste in an albatross’s nest, have imprinted themselves on public consciousness in countries where these reports have been widely seen. But policymakers’ efforts to tackle the plastic problem have been limited to waste management, including the bans on plastic waste imports imposed by China and other countries, and restrictions in many countries on the sale of single-use plastic items such as bags.

Such measures can have localised effects, and influence attitudes and behaviour. But they have not touched the source of the problem: the total amount of plastic waste in the world is predicted to almost quadruple by 2050 and the oil industry is heavily invested in expansion, partly as a means of coping with reduced demand in other areas, as people switch to greener technologies. This has to change. In the words of oceans campaigner Christina Dixon, the “plastics tap must be turned off”.