Stefanie Valentic, Editorial Director

September 7, 2021

3 Min Read
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The fight against plastic pollution wages on as various industry efforts work to reduce packaging, hold manufacturers accountable and educate consumers about the consequences of plastic waste.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation's new white paper, A New UN Treaty to Address Plastic Pollution, appeals to the United Nations in an effort to create a more concerted effort to reduce plastics.

The message is supported by three main tenets: to eliminate all problematic and unnecessary plastic items we do not need; innovate to ensure that the plastics we do need are reusable, recyclable or compostable; and circulate all plastics items we use to keep them in the economy and out of the environment.

On Political Support...

The paper begins with a direct message to policymakers. The foundation introduces the urgency for a comprehensive measure:

Plastic pollution is rapidly outpacing current efforts to stop it. Without additional measures, the volume of plastic on the market will double, the annual volume of plastic entering the ocean will triple, and ocean plastic stocks will quadruple within the next 20 years. 

The Foundation writes that political discussions on the topic of plastic pollution "have gained significant momentum." It points to the G7 and G20's previous initiatives that assimilate objectives into a shared vision.

A UN treaty would solidify a global measure to approach the issue from a multi-tiered perspective including enabling circular design in relevant sectors, promoting resource management, reviewing financial setups and regulations and facilitating investment.

In this regard, governments, industry, and civil society stakeholders should work together towards creating a common understanding and direction of travel on the main building blocks for a new UN treaty on plastic pollution. This would also speed up formal negotiations, once the decision on a mandate under the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA) will have been adopted, the Foundation writes.

On Pathways to a Treaty...

The report explains why a global treaty is needed versus other piecemeal efforts that have taken place on a country-by-country basis. Isolation stifles the effectiveness of these efforts, which have mainly zeroed in on waste management or clean-ups versus preventing pollution. 

The Foundation writes: None of these measures will work in isolation, as the climate, biodiversity, and (plastic) pollution crises are increasingly interlinked.

It also points to the role of a circular economy in a product's lifecycle and the business opportunities of reducing plastics. The report states that despite all known solutions and efforts currently at "maximum speed and scale," more than 150 million tonnes of plastic waste will be incinerated, landfilled or mismanaged each year by 2040. Therefore, innovation must happen at "unprecedented speed and scale," to develop new business models, product designs and collection systems. 

And there is incentive to do so. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates the shift to converting 20% of global plastic packaging to a reuse model could amount to a $10 billion business opportunity.

On Treaty Conditions...

A global treaty would be an amalgamation of existing policies and collaborations. However, it would be united under one vision to steer the proverbial ship forward. In a global circular economy, plastic would never become waste or pollution.

UN involved also would provide clarity on the scope of plastic pollution as well as a timeline for implementation as well as a commitment to build resources where needed. In order for this to be successful, the Ellen MacArthur identified Five Universal Circular Economy Policy Goals:

  1. Enable circular design solutions for plastics in the relevant sectors;

  2. Promote better resource management capabilities in countries and industries where most needed to avoid waste and pollution;

  3. Review the setup of financial and economic incentives and regulations to shape the right conditions;

  4. Facilitate investments to scale relevant innovations, infrastructures, and skills; and

  5. Foster public-private collaboration across value chains and governance structures.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation concludes: The scope and ambition of the actual content of a UN Treaty will have to match the overall objective of keeping plastics in the economy and stopping their leakage into the environment. Of necessity, these measures relate to the full lifecycle of plastic products in various sectors, which requires a multi-layered governance approach and, mutually reinforcing simultaneous actions from various stakeholders on sub-national, national, and regional level.

About the Author(s)

Stefanie Valentic

Editorial Director, Waste360

Stefanie Valentic is the editorial director of Waste360. She can be reached at [email protected].


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