Advocates for a global plastics environmental treaty similar to the Paris climate accord are looking to an upcoming United Nations assembly to kick-start negotiations to reduce ocean plastics.
Governments from Europe and Africa, along with a high-level U.N. official, held a Feb. 17 online forum to urge the U.N. Environment Assembly to start drafting a formal treaty committing countries to reduce plastics pollution and give a boost to more sustainable business models.
The UNEA, which meets formally every two years, is set to hold a virtual meeting of national delegations Feb. 22-23, its first gathering since it last met in-person in 2019.
Ines dos Santos Costa, Portugal's secretary of state of environment, told the forum a global treaty would help coordinate different national approaches on plastic and should consider things like carbon pricing, leveling the field between recycled and virgin plastics, product design, recycled content and litter control.
"We need to have a global legal framework that is fit to tackle this problem at an international level," she said. "Of course we need plastics but I think we have relied on it beyond [what is] reasonable to allow low-cost mass production to favor disposability."
She said plastics production is projected to double by 2040, and the amount of plastic in the ocean will quadruple, indicating that current control efforts are not working. Costa said investments in cleanup and recycling are lagging well behind investments in new plastic production.
A United Nations report released Feb. 18 for the UNEA meeting said that plastic litter in the oceans has grown tenfold since 1980, and accounts for 60-80 percent of marine debris.
The idea of a global treaty has previously garnered some support from businesses. Packaging maker Amcor Ltd., polyolefins maker Borealis AG and recycling equipment supplier Tomra issued a joint statement in October, with Coca-Cola Co. and other large companies, supporting a global treaty.
Borealis said at the time there was an "urgent need" for a more ambitious approach.
But one U.N. official at the Feb. 17 event, Peter Thomson, the U.N. Secretary General's special envoy for the ocean, predicted difficult discussions with the plastics industry.
"I foresee a long, hard engagement with the producers of plastic, the petrochemical industry," Thomson said. "I imagine this battle could make our long, drawn out struggle with the tobacco industry look like a bun fight."
The details of any potential global agreement are yet to be settled. Advocates have said they do not envision it funding waste management around the world, but rather guide countries in setting national plastic plans, developing sustainability standards for the material and providing financial assistance around research.
The eight member nations of the Nordic Council made a similar call for a plastics treaty in October and said more than 100 other nations supported it.