An ambitious global treaty is a crucial step in solving the plastic crisis

Governments, businesses and civil society must seize this pivotal moment and call for a meaningful framework to enable the transition to a circular economy.

Last month, representatives from over 160 nations gathered in the seaside city of Punta del Este, Uruguay, to begin negotiations for a global plastics treaty. The meeting of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) was the first step on a two-year road to a legally binding treaty aimed at ending the flow of plastic pollution into our oceans and other critical ecosystems. Despite the many speed bumps negotiators are sure to encounter in the coming months and years, the progress made in Punta del Este underscored that success is within our grasp. What we need now is the global community — governments, businesses and civil society — to seize this crucial moment in history and call for an effective and ambitious global treaty, while simultaneously matching their public commitments with meaningful and measurable solutions. 

The ultimate solution to our plastics crisis is a circular economy — that is, an economy in which products can retain their value at every stage of their life cycle, from the moment we first extract the raw materials to product design, fabrication, use, reuse, recover and ultimately recycle. By embracing an approach that ensures a viable market for plastic throughout its life cycle, we can incentivize producers to create plastic products that will continue to circulate in the economy rather than become trash that ends up in nature.

To that end, we need a treaty that lays the groundwork for achieving three essential goals. First, the treaty must help drive the elimination of problematic plastics such as cutlery, straws or pigmented PET bottles. Second, it must facilitate maximizing the circulation of remaining plastic through reuse and recycling. And third, it must help ensure the safe management of exception waste, including medically necessary plastics, and legacy waste that is already found in nature, so that it no longer ends up in our oceans, rivers and other critical ecosystems.

The INC meeting in Punta del Este ended with plenty of the treaty’s details still to be hashed out. Nevertheless, there was significant momentum around the idea that a treaty must set common goals, targets and obligations for signatory nations to implement. Unlike the Paris Agreement, which established global climate targets but allowed each signatory nation to develop its own individual action plan, a plastics treaty will not deliver on the results we need by relying on nearly 200 execution strategies.

By embracing an approach that ensures a viable market for plastic throughout its life cycle, we can incentivize producers to create plastic products that will continue to circulate in the economy rather than become trash that ends up in nature.

Instead, we need a framework more akin to the Montreal Ozone Protocol and the Minamata Convention on Mercury, both of which successfully established global alignment on regulations that every signatory nation must abide by. By the end of the negotiating session in the first INC meeting, around 145 nations signaled their support for just such an approach — a major milestone on the path to an effective treaty.

Another idea that gained significant support during the negotiations was the importance of new design standards that would make it easier for non-producing nations to handle all types of materials. Given the scale and scope of the plastics problem, and the fact that the available infrastructure in each country vastly differs, it’s heartening to see more governments recognize the need for a treaty that is adaptable to local conditions, while delivering global results. As negotiations proceed, it will also be critical to ensure the treaty provides practical instruments — such as policy recommendations, shared technologies and a common numerical language to measure results — that facilitate implementation and enable monitoring of progress. And finally, the treaty must help drive global efforts to address the mutually reinforcing crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, by switching away from fossil fuel-based plastic, while also considering the socioeconomic and human health impacts on communities.

According to recent global polling, an average of nearly 90 percent of people across 28 countries believe a global plastics treaty is important to tackling the plastic pollution crisis. Likewise, a growing number of business leaders are  waking up to the threat that this crisis represents and support robust efforts to address it. One promising trend of late is the voluntary actions taken by companies. According to the third annual public report by ReSource: Plastic — a consortium of some of the world’s largest brands who have set time-bound commitments to reduce their plastic waste footprints — companies can make a significant impact just by taking actions within their own operational control, including shifting away from single-use and making packaging 100 percent recyclable​.

At the same time, the report makes clear that the plastic crisis will only be solved when we fix the broken material system that underpins it, and that’s why we need more private sector advocacy for systemic solutions such as a global plastics treaty. A newly launched coalition — the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty — is calling on world leaders to adopt an ambitious treaty that will enable the transition to a circular economy. The coalition unites 85 companies, financial institutions and NGOs — among them the coalition’s conveners, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the  Ellen MacArthur Foundation — in igniting a clear sense of urgency to solve the plastic pollution crisis. 

The next INC meeting will take place in May in Paris. Between now and then, it is incumbent upon all stakeholders — particularly businesses — to make their voices heard. By 2025, humanity could be on a new path to a zero-plastic pollution future, if world leaders can embrace the call for a meaningful treaty and muster the political will to step up and do right by people and the planet. By Erin Simon