Attempts to regulate plastic through regional or piecemeal approaches are ultimately insufficient to address the scale and projected expansion of the industry. Instead, a team of attorneys and academics argue in an article that appeared 2 July in Science, that the starting point for curbing the plastic pollution crisis is the adoption of an internationally binding agreement - a treaty - across the entire life cycle.
Recent studies demonstrate both the magnitude and the transboundary nature of the crisis, with plastic appearing in ecosystems, the atmosphere, and throughout the human body, while analyses reveal social, environmental, and economic impacts from extraction of raw materials to legacy plastic pollution.
As the authors write: “Targeting the full life cycle of plastics allows for a more equitable distribution of the costs and benefits of relevant actions across the global value chain.”
Giulia Carlini, Senior Attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) and one of the article co-authors, stressed that even though researchers agree that there is still more to discover in terms of the full range of impacts from plastic, there is no time to waste.
A treaty, she continued, would be a push for stakeholders to re-envision and re-design entire systems in a manner that works for health and the environment, and respects human rights.
The key goals of such a treaty have been set out in the article and include, among others, minimising virgin plastics production and consumption using an agreement to progressively decrease the global production allowance. Production and consumption should be phased out by 2040, with recycled content becoming the standard, with limited exceptions.
It is also essential to facilitate safe circularity of plastics by incentivising design for recycling, improving recycling rates, and fostering recycled content. The process would include eliminating hazardous substances, providing health benefits to consumers and ecosystems while transforming the entire plastics value chain.
Moreover, plastic pollution in the environment must be eliminated, which means addressing the plastics that have already accumulated in the environment and preventing those already in use from ending up in the environment. To meet the goal, there must be a scaling up of existent national and regional-level instruments.
Solutions must be developed that are commensurate with plastic’s role in contributing to the climate crisis, recognising that if plastic production continues at its anticipated pace, the increase in virgin plastics production will consume 10 to 13% of the remaining global carbon budget to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5°C.