Plastic treaty talks unlikely to deliver solution

As negotiations continue this week to try and agree terms of a new global plastic pollution agreement, experts warn the future still looks worrying. 

sprite plastic bottle on table

A new paper, Why Lifecycle Solutions Are Needed to Tackle Marine Plastic Pollution, produced by Chatham House and the Global Water Partnership, lays bare many of the issues with this week’s United Nations talks in Stockholm. 

By focusing largely on downstream solutions — for example clean up operations, which themselves use significant resources — and neglecting to fill large data gaps, international efforts to try and stem the $100billion annual plastic pollution crisis are unlikely to succeed in actually tacking the problem. Instead, the researchers point to existing approaches in the EU, Japan and Chile, which seem to be having a much more significant impact. 

The introduction of varied upstream and downstream policy measures is essential, running from product design requirements and bans targeting specific types of materials, through to Extended Producer Responsibility schemes. In Europe , the Waste Framework Directive and Packaging Directive have been successful in enforcing recycling targets and circular design specifications for plastic, with more than a decade of evidence to support this. 

Meanwhile, the 2018 Chile Plastics Pact has already set the target of removing single use plastics, including a requirement that a third of household and non-domiciliary plastic packaging be recycled, reused, or composted, and 25% of all containers be made from recycled materials 

Chatham House and Global Water Partnership’s paper makes several recommendations, including a reduction in demand for unnecessary and harmful plastic products via levies, bans, or ending subsidies. Circular design should be encouraged through mandates such as materials needing to be recyclable, and recycling rates increased through effective policy including deposit return schemes and landfill taxes. Finally, leakage pathways allowing plastics to enter the world’s water systems should be identified and collection systems improved. 

‘It’s hard to recover the costs from marine and coastal debris clean-ups. For example, it cost around $8,900 per tonne of plastic removed from the Aldabra Atoll beaches, and with an estimated 513 tonnes of plastics on the Atoll’s beaches, this approach would cost over $4.5 million making it clearly unaffordable,’ said Dr. Patrick Schröder, Senior Research Fellow, Chatham House, giving an example of why the clean up focus is not scalable. 

‘The treaty may not be able to address all the problems of plastic pollution, in which case the hard lifting will still need to be done by national governments. What limits its potential impact is a lack of reliable data and the misalignment of economic incentives, infrastructure, and pricing models. Market-based instruments can help redress this but there must be a comprehensive approach,’ said Niamh Brannigan, Head of Communications, Global Water Partnership.

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Image: Nick Fewings


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