What would we do without plastics? Perhaps the greatest material humanity ever invented.

They are used for everything from furniture to DVDs to heart valves to wind turbines, widely used in practically every sphere of life. One wonders how the medical profession ever functioned without them. Or how you and I could function without our digital devices.

But as with so much stuff, sometimes there can be too much of a good thing. And that is emphatically the case with plastics.

We are drowning in plastics. The world produces about 400 million tons of plastic waste a year, only ten percent of which is recycled. It is far cheaper to manufacture most types of plastic from scratch than from recycled material.

Much of that littered and landfilled plastic ultimately breaks down into microplastics which contaminate our food, air, and water. They also accumulate in our bodies. Some chemicals in microplastics are associated with serious health effects, especially in women. Scientists have established links between chemical additives that leach from plastics with obesity, diabetes, poor brain health and cancer.

And then there’s the fact that plastics are mostly made from fossil fuels using processes that emit greenhouse gases and hazardous chemicals. A toxic tidal wave.

The good news is that the world is inching toward dealing with the problem. Under the auspices of the UN, an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee is developing an international legally binding treaty on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment. The committee’s third session just concluded in Nairobi, Kenya.

Over 1,900 delegates, representing 161 nations, including the European Union and over 318 observer organizations, participated. According to Gustavo Adolfo Meza-Cuadra, outgoing chair of the committee, “These past 10 days have been a significant step forward towards the achievement of our objective to develop an international legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution.” He added that there is, however, much left to do.

This session is considered to be at the midpoint of negotiations. A text of the future treaty was discussed as a “zero draft.” The goal is to have the final text ready by the end of next year. 

The next committee session will take place in Ottawa in April 2024, followed by the final session in November/December 2024 in South Korea. This will be followed by a diplomatic conference in 2025, when members are expected to adopt the treaty and open it for signing.

Not all the environmental news is good news, to say the least. Seeing the world come together in this way to deal with a major environmental challenge takes the edge of one’s pessimism.

We need a strong and just international plastic treaty followed by effective implementation, and the prospect for all this is looking good. Meza-Cuadra closed the session by quoting Nelson Mandela, “Sometimes, it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation.” Let’s hope we can, at least with plastics.

One thought on “Taming plastics”
  1. I recently came across an article claiming that most plastics put out for recycling end up in landfills or incinerators. We put it out, our municipalities hire companies to collect it and then dispose of it in the least expensive manner possible.

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