As British Science Week – the UK’s annual ten-day celebration of science – comes to a close, news of negotiations around a global plastics treaty takes us back to a British Science Week of years gone by. Four years ago, we partnered with The Plastic Tide (now Ellipsis) to unite the UK in the fight against plastic pollution. We enlisted the nation in our ocean clean-up citizen science project, tasking the public to find, photograph and log plastic waste on our shores.

Fast forward to 2022, and at the most recent meeting of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) in Nairobi, 175 countries announced they will begin talks around an international treaty to end to plastic pollution. The Assembly have until 2024 to ratify plans on funding and the legal obligations of nations who sign up.

Plastic’s bad rap

It’s estimated that:

  • Since the 1950s, 9 billion tonnes (that’s 9,000,000,000) of plastic have been produced worldwide
  • Annually, we make 400 million tonnes (400,000,000) of plastic
  • 5 trillion (that’s 5,000,000,000,000) individual pieces are littering the seas.

Plastics can take anywhere from ten to 500 years to break down. While plastics remain intact, they can be ingested by wildlife and negatively impact habitats, causing considerable harm to the health of our ecosystems over very long periods of time.

Why is the treaty significant?

Supporters of the treaty have hailed the UNEA’s resolution as “ambitious”, “historic” and the “biggest multilateral environmental deal” since the 2015 Paris Agreement, the landmark decision to prevent global temperatures rising 1.5 degrees Celcius above the average.

The plastics treaty can also be compared to the 1989 Montreal Protocol which successfully phased out ozone-depleting substances and reversed human-derived damage to the ozone layer. Montreal remains the only treaty ever signed by all UN member states (then, 198).

Perhaps most importantly, the resolution will focus on each stage of the plastic lifecycle – from production, to design, right through to disposal. This is the action required, according to experts, to finally curb our reliance on the use of unsustainable plastics.

The UNEA also says this agreement will lead to the creation of 700,000 jobs, mainly in the global south. Professor Steve Fletcher of the University of Portsmouth, who advises the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on plastics issues, however reminds developed nations that they must ensure poorer countries are supported in their contributions to combatting plastic pollution.

Plastic, the public and policymakers

Some of the strangest items discovered during the British Science Week ocean clean-up in 2018 included a Lego cutlass, headless teddy bear and toilet seat. The decisions – conscious or unconscious – to throwaway a seemingly harmless object, could in fact end up in it appearing miles away, to the detriment of local animals and plants.

Citizen science projects like this are just one way the public can experience the true scale of the plastic problem which, due to the ongoing pandemic and need for PPE, has only gotten worse.

Finally, it is responsibility of richer economies – who have fuelled the problem for the past 70 or so years – to cooperate and lend support to smaller countries and island states who are disproportionately affected by plastic pollution. Consequently, policymakers must push for a just transition towards a truly sustainable global economy for all, rather than putting the interests of the wealthiest 1% first.

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