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New UN Initiative Addresses Global Plastic Crisis

Plastic is a success story for human invention. Since its invention in the mid-20th century, our use of plastic has grown exponentially. It’s easy to see why: Plastic can do things that other materials cannot. We deploy it across a myriad of uses — from toys and medical applications to body armor for the military. It keeps our food fresh and makes our cars lighter and faster.

“Plastic is Forever” – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Plastic

That very versatility and our creativity in finding ways to use plastic is a problem. While plastic is a dream of a product, plastic production impacts the climate — it is an environmental nightmare — causing damage to ecosystems and human health. After all, plastic is created from petroleum, and the process of refining oil into the chemicals needed to formulate plastic produces greenhouse gas emissions.

Plastic waste is plastic’s most visible impact. Some cities dispose of plastic waste in landfills, where it takes hundreds of years for plastic to break down. Mismanaged waste can leak out of landfills, ending up in waterways and eventually our seas. Every minute, the equivalent of a garbage truck of plastic is washed into oceans. Once there, plastic begins to shed microscopic sized particles — called microplastics — into the water. Microplastics are especially troublesome because we cannot see them and don’t know where they are. For example, 83% of tap water and 90% of bottled water has been found to contain plastic.

Why Haven’t We Been Able To Stop The Flood Of Plastic Waste?

For a variety of reasons, getting a grip on plastic is challenging. For example, recycling is often touted as the solution to our plastic problem, but recycling plastic is more complicated and expensive than it appears. We can’t simply melt a pile of plastics together and make new things out of the resulting soup. Different plastics are made from different chemical combinations, and each has its own recycling process. That makes plastic recycling labor-intensive and costly. Globally, less than 10% of the 7 billion tons of plastic waste generated has been recycled. Second, plastic is a big business, and plastics production is an important industry in several industrialized countries. This makes it hard to stem the production of new plastics. During the past four decades, plastic production has more than quadrupled, with the global plastic market valued at around $615.2 billion in 2022.

Can Environmental Regulations Address Our Plastic Crisis?

Unfortunately, most countries that are heavy plastic users do not have comprehensive regulation for plastic. For example, U.S. federal law delegates the management of solid waste, including plastic, to states who often delegate it to municipalities. Cities and states then decide what measures to take to address plastic. Some may tax or ban specific plastic products, while others have no regulations for plastic. But delegating regulation to the state and city level means we end up with a patchwork of laws across the country. That makes it hard for recycling companies to build the scale needed for their businesses. The globalization of plastic waste supply chains, with much plastic waste being exported to China, further complicates the picture. Changes to China’s import laws disrupted this pattern, and now countries are struggling to figure out how to deal with their plastic waste.

In early 2022, the United Nations recognized plastic pollution as a critical global issue and formed a committee to negotiate an international plastics treaty. The first negotiating session, held in November 2022, highlighted a key challenge: aligning countries with each other, and with other constituents, on the goals of the treaty. Opening statements at the November negotiating sessions showed that parties have different views on what specifically is the “problem” with plastics. Some see plastic as a hero product, critical to achieving global development goals, while others cast plastic as an environmental villain. Finding common ground will be a daunting task.

Negotiations on the treaty are scheduled to continue for the next two years, and we will report their progress in this column. In the meantime, please share your plastics experiences with us