The plastic crisis threatens the largest ecosystems on the planet, but the international community has largely ignored it as waste continues to build. Now, finally, 175 countries are due to begin negotiations on tackling one of the greatest environmental challenges of our time.
Plastic pollution has a lasting effect on our planet
It is hard to describe just how much plastic has added to our lives. It has only existed for 115 years, but has since its invention revolutionised the way we live. Food, medicine, transport, technology, and countless other aspects of modern life have been made easier and safer by synthetic plastics. We clearly have a lot to thank plastics for, but the rate and scale at which we consume them (400 million tonnes per year) is not sustainable. The pandemic has led to a massive increase in single use plastic waste. Trillions of plastic particles litter Earth, and will not break down for hundreds of years.
Of course, the harmful environmental effects of plastic are well-known. Go to any river, any beach, and you will find some sort of plastic waste. Images of seabirds and turtles entangled in rubbish are burned into the collective consciousness. But it’s the plastic you can’t see that is the most insidious. Microplastics are tiny particles that may be invisible to the naked eye, but have entered the food chain as organisms unintentionally eat or inhale them. This includes us: on average, we ingest a credit card’s weight of plastic every week. Not just through eating seafood – microplastics also enter our body through packaging, water and even breathing in air. As of now no conclusive studies exist on plastic ingestion’s effects on human health. However, increased exposure has been linked to cancer, infertility, and a range of other medical issues.
As we cannot eliminate every piece of plastic waste (although we may be getting closer), we must limit its use.
Will plastic have its own Paris Agreement?
Last week at the 5th session of the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, representatives from 175 countries passed a resolution to end plastic pollution. They agreed to create a global treaty, which will be legally-binding, by 2024. The executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) called it the most important environmental deal since 2015’s resolution on climate change in Paris.
This is certainly a huge step towards cleaning up our planet and limiting the catastrophic effects that plastic has on the environment. As plastic pollution has no borders, an international agreement on tackling the problem is necessary. Of course, as we see with the climate negotiations, even a global, legally-binding agreement can mean little if large economies and corporations stand in the way of ambitious targets. Developing countries needs more technical and financial support with clearing up waste that often comes from richer economies. The UN will need to make many decisions, on which aspects of the treaty are legally-binding for example. And the treaty must address all stages of plastic pollution, from production to disposal, to be effective in reducing pollution. But this first agreement is certainly a huge, ambitious step in the right direction.
Today marks a triumph by planet earth over single-use plastics. This is the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the Paris accord. It is an insurance policy for this generation and future ones, so they may live with plastic and not be doomed by it.