Pollution

Contending with the plague of plastic pollution

Plastic use has become an increasingly pervasive part of our modern lives. The popularity of plastic is understandable due to its low production costs and its numerous practical benefits, including low weight, durability, and flexibility. However, the environmental toll of plastic use and its negative impacts on human health are now major problems. It is thus encouraging to see the UN system taking some tangible steps to address the growing menace of plastic pollution.

At the fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi in early March, representatives of 175 countries agreed to develop a first-of-its-kind treaty to restrict plastic pollution. The proposed treaty ambitiously aims to formulate legally binding mechanisms to not only restrict plastic pollution, but to also place curbs on producing more plastics, especially single-use plastics.

The decision to formulate a global plastics treaty has been compared by its proponents to the Paris Agreement in 2015, whereby nations agreed to articulate nationally determined targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, it is important to note that the agreement reached thus far only promises that countries around the world will work together to formulate a treaty to curb plastic pollution. It will probably take another couple of years to hammer out details of an actual treaty.

Already, pushback against the proposed treaty has become evident in countries like India which are demanding that any action to contend with plastics should be on a voluntary basis. A reference to curbing chemicals used in plastic production also saw objections raised by powerful countries like the US . Therefore, it remains to be seen what shape the final treaty to contend with plastic pollution will take.

The severe problems created by plastic waste are hard to deny. Plastics cause major harm during the process of their production, and long after they have been discarded. Microplastics have wreaked havoc on ecosystems, and they have pervaded our water sources and food chains. Yet , the amount of plastic the world produces and consumes continues to grow. Despite the seeming emphasis on recycling, less than a tenth of plastic used is recycled. Instead, the bulk of plastic is used just once after which it becomes plastic waste.

Many poorer countries lack adequate plastic waste management policies, on top of which they are also being flooding with plastics via imports. Back in 2020, more than 180 nations agreed to place limits on exports of plastic waste to poorer countries from richer ones under a framework known as the Basel Convention. The United States did not ratify this treaty, and violations of these rules by signatory nations also remain rampant. When stemming the flow of plastic waste from wealthier nations to poorer ones remains a challenge, trying to implement a legally binding treaty to curb global plastic production is an even taller order. Any treaty that aims to restrict plastic production would have major implications not only for corporations, which use plastic to package their products, but also for oil and chemicals companies that make raw plastics.

Transitioning away from plastics will undoubtedly require immense political will as well as concerted pressure from environmental groups and from ordinary citizens. Increasing pressure from environmental groups and even consumers has led corporations like Coca-Cola, a leading producer of plastic bottles, to ramp up recycling efforts to protect their brand image. Yet, there is much that still needs to be done to effectively curb producing more plastic waste and to deal with the existing plastic waste which is poisoning the Earth and all the living beings on it.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 1st2022.

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