Skip to main content

Public support for a comprehensive, legally-binding treaty to reduce the production of plastics is growing in the run up to the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee meeting in Ottawa, Canada, later this month.

Around 100 organisations from across the world are calling on governments to introduce a Global Plastics Treaty setting out national targets to reduce plastic production. They cite the success of the Montreal Protocol of 1987, where governments agreed to protect the ozone layer by dramatically reducing the production of harmful chemicals such as CFCs and HCFCs. 

Tackling plastic pollution has always enjoyed popular support, but recent polling shows extremely high levels of public backing for reducing plastic production. A poll conducted across 19 countries in February this year shows eight in ten people support a reduction in plastic production, with similar levels of support for banning single-use plastics. Meanwhile, country delegates are facing pressure from more than two million people who have signed a petition calling for a global treaty to cut production.

Damaging impacts

Environmental pollution and human health concerns are driving public support for tackling plastic production. Ecosystems across the world have been severely impacted by plastic, which causes habitat degradation, chemical contamination, and death and injuries through entanglement. Plastics break down into micro and nanoplastics, which are comprised of toxic chemicals and enter the food chain, causing health problems for wildlife and humans including weakened immune systems and reproductive issues.

Equally important, however, is plastic’s impact on climate change. Ninety-nine per cent of plastic is made from fossil fuels. As a result, the full lifecycle of plastics is responsible for 4% of global greenhouse emissions. Indeed, plastics alone are expected to account for at least 13% of the world’s carbon budget before 2050 if we are to stay within the Paris 1.5C temperature limit. Plastic is, therefore, a key market for fossil fuel companies, which despite the dangers of climate change are keen to expand production at a time when their core businesses are coming under threat from renewable energy and electrification.

Reduction targets

Governments across the world have introduced measures to address these serious environmental, climate and health problems by trying to reduce demand for plastics – for example more than 120 countries have introduced bans or taxes on single-use plastics. Massive efforts have also been made to increase recycling. These have had little impact. The world is now producing twice as much plastic as it did twenty years ago, with forecasts suggesting production will almost triple by 2050

Currently, only 9% of global production is successfully recycled, while 22% evades all waste management systems altogether and is simply dumped into the environment. The rest goes to landfill or is incinerated. Just 6% of total production is accounted for by recycled plastic. There is a massive disparity in the amount of plastic waste produced by different countries, but almost half comes from developed countries, which have the resources to tackle the problem.

Fossil fuel lobbying 

Despite the obvious shortcomings of recycling as a solution, the fossil fuel industry is keen to focus attention on it while increasing demand for plastics in the hope of continuing to increase production. Indeed, together with the chemicals industry, the fossil fuel industry sent more than 140 lobbyists to the INC3 session in Nairobi at the end of last year, more than the number of delegates attending from 70 countries. 

The focus for many others has now moved to cutting production. The Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL) is calling for at least a 70% reduction by 2050, with legally-binding rules for national targets to make sure that action is taken. Greenpeace is calling for a 75% reduction by 2040 to ensure the best chance of remaining within 1.5C. Academics at both Lund University and UC Berkeley have also called for restrictions on production. 

All eyes will now be on the negotiations in Ottawa to see if nations act on these recommendations and finally agree rules to tackle the scourge of plastic pollution that is causing untold damage to the climate, environment and health.