This upcoming month the UN will begin work on a new climate treaty that will target the rise of plastic pollution. The deal — which involves roughly 200 countries — would specifically work to forestall the predicted growth rate of plastic pollution in the decades to come.
One of the issues at the forefront of the treaty would be a joint effort to limit the amount of pollution in the world’s oceans. Bigger countries, such as the United States, are expected to aim for more ambitious targets.
Plastic makes up 80% of all marine debris
Toothpaste tubes, straws, shopping bags, water bottles: the majority of these items will end up not in the recycling, but in the world’s own ‘personal plastic trash can’ — the ocean. Plastic pollution wreaks havoc on both land and water, the majority of it ends up in the ocean, killing sea life. By 2050, there is expected to be more plastic than fish, by weight, in the ocean.
Plastic ends up in the sea from a number of factors — littering is one of the most common ways. Littered plastic can be swept down through storm drains into local waterways, traveling into rivers and eventually into the ocean. This assortment of littered plastics often leads to animals tangled in nets and choking on debris that fills their stomachs. Illegal dumping and poor waste management are also a factor contributing to ocean pollution.
One of the biggest, and most concerning, sources of plastic pollution in the ocean is microplastics. Microplastics often come from hygiene products and cosmetics. In today’s age, even with restrictions from government agencies like the European Chemical Agency, more than 500 microplastic ingredients are widely used in cosmetic products.
The reasons microplastics are so detrimental is the way they affect both animals and humans.
Microplastics contain toxic chemicals that are hazardous to several different organs and systems in the body. Microplastics, if small enough to enter cells, can also lead to diseases like cancer.
Animals are victims first — with microplastics floating in the ocean, many fish consume these microplastics, with no nutritional value, and end up not eating enough food to survive. If these fish do survive, the microplastics that poison the fish, poison their consumers — humans.
In 2015, oceanographers estimated there were between 15 to 51 trillion microplastic particles floating through the world’s oceans — today would be much more.
How will the UN treaty target plastic pollution?
Similar to the Paris Agreement, one of the first issues the plastic treaty would address is taking inventory. How much plastic is being manufactured? Recycled? What chemicals are going into plastic?
After addressing these questions and gaining an insight into how plastic has evolved in today’s day and age, diplomats will be able to gain an idea of the full effects of plastic pollution and how better to address it — especially when trying to combat ocean pollution.
The new treaty comes at a time when plastic production is rapidly increasing and attempts to dispose of plastic properly — like recycling — cannot withstand the high rates of plastic.
Recycling is quite simply a contradiction. Made for the proper disposal of plastic, recycling, even if it could withstand the numbers, can’t recycle the majority of plastic because of “hard to break down chemicals.” Many recycling programs also create toxins as waste products. In 2018, China, one the biggest countries that does plastic waste reprocessing, had ended programs due to these environmental concerns. For several years now, the majority of plastics recycled haven’t been recycled at all.
As recycling falls and production rises, countries have hit all-time plastic waste highs.
The United States, the world’s biggest producer of plastic waste per person, hit 287 pounds of plastic waste per person per year according to an estimate by U.S. Researchers in 2020. The United States often exports this plastic waste to other countries for processing — rich countries often putting the burden on smaller, less developed countries.
The pandemic also has prompted the rise of single-use plastic products such as masks, medical equipment, food containers, etc. The Washington Post reported that in South Korea, waste went up 19% in 2020 since the previous year.
Many countries, including the United States and South Korea, have expressed their willingness to decrease plastic waste, but will take a lot of effort as industries, such as the fossil fuel industry, move into the plastic business sector.
Alternatives – Can a safe plastic be developed?
Many environmentalists are in favor of developing a safe plastic, with less toxic and “easy to break down chemicals,” alongside limiting plastic production itself. By developing a safer plastic, plastics would be more easily recyclable and promote production designs for reuse.
Some safer alternatives to plastics are already in the making.
California based company Newlight Technologies has spent over a decade creating a plastic alternative called AirCarbon, that would break down naturally. In order to do this, the company used microorganisms from the ocean to turn methane into carbon dioxide into a polymer — polymers working just like plastic but break down naturally.
Already two companies are using the plastic alternative — Restore, a cutlery company, and Covalent, a company specializing in accessories. Eventually, the company hopes to see the plastic alternative used globally.
Turkish company Biolive is also creating a plastic alternative. Using olive seeds to create plastics, the product is 100% biodegradable, antibacterial, edible, cost effective and simultaneously limits waste coming from olive oil extract. Notable companies that are already using this plastic are Chobani, Porsche, Ford and Mercedes-Benz.
Concerned about business, the plastics industry stated they would be willing to negotiate with the UN, but want to reach an agreement which would allow private businesses to produce innovative ways to combat plastic pollution.
With many countries signing on, policymakers are hopeful they will reach an agreement. Though to get it done right, many diplomats are saying it could take one or two years to complete the treaty.
However long the waiting will be, talks of a new treaty from the UN are good news — especially to those most affected by plastic waste. As the fight against plastic continues, hopefully the agreement will lead to a collective effort between nations to address the many problems plastic pollution poses in the environment.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com contributors are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — Featured Photo: Dead bird tangled and drowned by an old rope on August 11, 2017. Source: John Campbell, Flickr.