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UN Treaty Is a Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity to End Plastic Pollution

Jo de Vries

Editorial Lead, Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Negotiations for a UN treaty to end plastic pollution highlight that tackling this issue isn’t a utopian ideal, but an urgent mission.

With the latest research indicating that there are over 170 trillion plastic particles floating in the ocean, it’s clear that plastic pollution is a global problem that needs a global solution. The Second Session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution that convened in Paris a few weeks ago. was a major stepping stone in finding such a solution, with the negotiators agreeing to develop a first version of the treaty text. The treaty has the potential to be transformative in reassessing how the world makes, uses, and thinks about plastic. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation calls for the treaty to be based on comprehensive circular economy measures, including reduction, redesign, and reuse, and on legally binding global rules. These are critical to end plastic pollution on a global scale.

Going beyond bans

Canada’s voice is vital in these negotiations, with the Canadian government having recently implemented a ban on six single-use plastics, including plastic checkout bags, straws, stir sticks, cutlery, and six-pack rings. Other countries adopting similar bans could form a crucial part of the global approach to plastic pollution, but such elimination strategies need to be coordinated, and global rules are essential to stimulate the investment and innovation that will drive change. The treaty can make this happen by initially focusing on the types of plastic most likely to end up in the environment — including packaging, which currently accounts for around 40 per cent of total plastic waste — so that rather than relying on recycling as a last resort, unnecessary and problematic plastic can be eliminated before it becomes an issue.

Canada has already been exploring upstream approaches, such as championing the Golden Design Rules for Plastic Packaging and publishing guidance on problematic plastics to avoid, through the Canada Plastics Pact — part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s global network of Plastics Pacts. This network of pacts unites businesses, governments, NGOs, and investors across the worldwide plastics packaging value chain behind one common goal to rethink how plastics are made and used and to take action collaboratively on time-bound targets. By embracing a circular economy approach, these Plastics Pacts support their members in redesigning the world’s relationship with single-use plastic: eliminating all the plastics we don’t need and that pose a high risk to the environment; innovating to ensure that the plastics we do need are reusable, recyclable, or compostable; and creating models that design out single-use plastics by focusing on reuse solutions.

Solutions at scale

However, voluntary commitments alone cannot fix the problem. There’s an urgent need to focus on circular economy solutions that ensure a substantial reduction in plastic production is possible. Reuse is one such vital solution and it offers one of the biggest opportunities to cut plastic leakage, as well as lower emissions and pressure on natural resources. The UN treaty has a vital role to play in scaling reuse, by facilitating design and infrastructure that works for global markets.

Alongside emphasizing reuse solutions, the treaty has the opportunity to ensure that responsibility for plastic pollution remains squarely with those who put plastic on the market in the first place. By introducing mandatory Extended Producer Responsibility policies on a global scale, the treaty can compel all industry players to fund the collection and treatment of plastic packaging, ensuring it doesn’t end up in the world’s rivers, oceans, and national parks.

Like so many global challenges, there’s no single solution, but by adopting an interconnected set of circular economy measures, the treaty could be a landmark moment in ending plastic pollution once and for all.

Explore further at ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/a-un-treaty-to-end-plastic-pollution.

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