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Is a world without plastics possible?

April 22, 2024

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The Conversation

Andrea Cocchini

Professor of International Law at the University of Navarra

On April 22, as every year since 1970, the International Earth Day is celebrated, the most important workshop dedicated to the protection of the environment. On this occasion, the Earth Day organization has chosen the slogan "planet versus plastic". The movement aims to "reduce plastic production by 60% by 2040 to build a plastic-free future for generations to come".

During this year's Earth Day, all initiatives will focus on informing and raising public awareness about the harm that plastic pollution poses to human health, biodiversity and the environment and the measures needed to tackle the problem.

committee Among them, Earth Day mentions the need to urgently push for the adoption of the future treaty against plastic, included in the United Nations Environment Program and being worked on with states since 2022 at the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution (INC). Regardless of whether a treaty is expected to be finalized by 2024, it is very likely that the agreement resulting from the negotiations will fall short of the ambitious goal that Earth Day promoters are proposing.

590 million tons of plastics in 2050

Global thermoplastics production is expected to reach 445.25 million tons in 2025 and annual production volumes are expected to continue to increase in the coming decades to approximately 590 million tons in 2050. This would represent an increase of more than 30 % over 2025.

These data demonstrate the inadequacy of current recycling systems, as well as of apparently more sustainable alternatives such as biodegradable plastics or bioplastics.

Of course, the future treaty cannot be asked to regulate and resolve the multiple challenges - technical, economic and social - involved in all the life phases of plastics (extraction of raw materials, the design of products, their consumption, the management and the transboundary shipment of plastic waste).

However, in view of the seriousness and urgency of the problem, it seems that one (perhaps the only?) solution still possible to reverse the course to which the figures referred to above are leading us would be the inclusion in the new treaty of a ban on states parties from producing new, unnecessary plastics.

However, after the third round of INC negotiations (of the five scheduled), the feeling is that state delegates are not really considering this possibility, even in the medium term.

New negotiations in April

At the time of writing, we have a second treaty draft which will be the document of reference letter for the negotiations of the fourth session, which will take place from April 21-30, 2024 in Ottawa (Canada). The document reflects the different positions of the national representatives during the third round of negotiations that took place in Nairobi, Kenya, in November 2023.

This second draft covers a wide range of alternatives, sometimes diametrically opposed. On the one hand, it maintains the proposal to prevent, progressively reduce and eliminate future plastic pollution by 2040, thus reflecting the positions of the countries most interested in eradicating the problem, such as those gathered in the Alliance of Small Island States.

On the other hand, from agreement with the States that propose to focus more on the rational management of plastic waste and on improving the design of plastic to make it more recyclable (such as those of the committee Cooperation for the Arab States of the Gulf), the draft suggests excluding from the scope of application of the future treaty the phases of extraction and transformation of the raw materials necessary for the production of plastics (essentially, crude oil and gas).

Likewise, in line with the positions of countries such as Russia, draft proposes to omit the phases related to the production of virgin polymers, because these phases do not generate - strictly speaking - plastic pollution and the raw materials extracted could still be used for the production of other non-plastic materials.

However, excluding raw materials, such as hydrocarbons, and intermediate products, such as virgin plastic polymers, from its application because they are technically not finished plastic products would seriously undermine the main goal of agreement: to put an end to plastic pollution and create an efficient Economics circular for plastics as well. 

Only plastics for medical and scientific use

If the negotiators had the same aspiration as the promoters of Earth Day to reduce plastic production by 60% by 2040, the treaty they are negotiating should be more daring from a legal point of view.

The agreement should introduce binding legal rules which, by giving concrete effect to basic principles of international environmental law (such as due diligence, precaution and prevention), impose a progressive, but already unavoidable, ban on the production of virgin plastics, with the obvious exception of plastics needed in the medical field and for scientific research .

If we want to stop ingesting the equivalent of one card of credit per week and avoid taking a dip in seas that by 2050 could have more plastics than fish, the legal solution is to veto once and for all this material that is so harmful to us and the planet.