My entry into the ocean plastic crisis began when our organization, SoulBuffalo, hosted the first ocean plastic summit for activists and industry in May 2019. To envision the summit, imagine 165 senior executives from Coca-Cola, Dow, Greenpeace, The American Chemistry Council, World Bank, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and representatives from some of the world’s 15 million informal garbage collectors sat for four days together on a boat in the middle of the Atlantic Garbage Patch.
These stakeholders have very different strategies, visions and goals. Our mission was to bring them together in the heart of the crisis to forge new relationships and accelerate action. We snorkeled together in a sea of plastic and had cross-border conversations between executives who are usually not in the same room.
We saw the paradox of plastic, partly miracle material, partly environmental scourge, up close. The light and strong plastic preserves food like no other material. However, it breaks down into microplastics and nanoplastics, which can be found all over the world today – from the deepest oceans to our own bodies.
Every day, plastic flows into our natural environment at an unprecedented rate – a dump truck is worth every minute in our oceans alone. As I wrote in Scientific American in August, the pandemic made it worse. Enough masks are made every year to cover the entire country of Switzerland.
The joint confrontation with this reality in the Atlantic Garbage Patch built bridges between the plastics industry and environmental NGOs. Five of the ideas developed during the summit will be funded and deployed today (including the Plastic Pickers Operational Working Group). The summit had a strong impact, but the crisis is far from resolved. The need for a complete overhaul of our broken waste management system is clear. The growing consensus is that the most effective way to do this is through a global UN treaty on plastics. In 14 months the United Nations will decide at the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) whether a treaty should be taken forward.
The more than 70-strong Ocean Plastics Leadership Network, the network of activists and industry dedicated to the plastics crisis that arose on this ship in the middle of the Atlantic, has set itself the goal of working on a “Paris Agreement” for plastics speed up.
We are currently working on a one-year series of virtual dialogues during the 14-month preparatory work period that will lead to the UNEA5 decision in February 2022 on the development of a global plastics contract. Our job is to achieve consensus among key stakeholders in order to expedite a plastics deal.
Traditionally, negotiating global contracts have been incredibly difficult, and the large number of actors involved in the global plastics crisis only adds to the complexity of the task.
Among the stakeholders for a new global agreement on plastic pollution are 193 UN-recognized governments; Thousands of businesses that rely on plastic; Trade and interest groups; Activists and nonprofits with industry exposure; Garbage collectors in developing countries responsible for collecting plastic from landfills and in front of beaches; and seven billion consumers who recycle an average of 14 percent of the total amount of plastic they use.
We are under no illusions about the scope of this challenge. We need to create a secure forum for hard talks between this large and diverse group before a decision is made in February 2022 to inform the negotiators at the United Nations and help develop the treaty. In the words of the Costa Rican diplomat Christiana Figueres, who was central to the implementation of the Paris Agreement, we must use “relentless optimism” combined with “radical cooperation”.
Despite this complexity, we believe that a major global agreement can be reached and that we need to reach it faster than any treaty before. There are good reasons to be optimistic. In 1988 the International Maritime Organization ratified a global agreement called MARPOL Annex V, which prohibited ships from throwing plastic into the ocean anywhere in the world. It is in force to this day and proves that there are global precedents for preserving our oceans.
All the Caribbean, Nordic and Pacific island states have called for a new global agreement. 68 countries have publicly expressed their interest in a plastics treaty, as has a broad coalition of African countries and the European Union. While the US has been particularly silent on this issue, global support is encouraging.
In November, the UK Environment Secretary declared the time to negotiate a plastics deal was now. “We now have a chance to tackle plastic pollution as the Paris Agreement did on climate change.” said Lord Zac Goldsmith. There is also hope across the environmental community that the recently elected Biden administration will be a major force in the plastics deal as the Obama administration was for the climate.
Key reports published by industry, NGOs and government in 2020 also provide a useful draft for on-site discussion. The WWF, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the Boston Consulting Group have set the business case for a global contract, and 30 large companies have signed a “Business Call for a UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution”. They urged others to work together for an international response that aligns businesses and governments and offers a clear approach to tackling the plastic crisis.
Environmental NGO groups have also spoken out in favor of a plastics contract in a report by the Center for International Environmental Law, the Environmental Investigation Agency and the GAIA (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives). The report is supported by the Break Free from Plastic movement and Greenpeace. Finally, a few weeks ago the Nordic Council of Ministers published a 148-page report containing a proposed framework and positioning for a future treaty.
These reports show that some basic points have already been aligned. Firstly, they all call for harmonized reporting on plastics throughout their life cycle, which makes it possible to take into account everything that is manufactured and how it is handled. This requires standardizing the terms for all plastic things so that regions and interest groups all speak the same language.
Second, all reports recommend national action plans in which each country draws up its own waste management plans based on minimum requirements, similar to what the nations with greenhouse gas emissions do under the Paris Agreement. Finally, the reports agree that scientific bodies should monitor progress around the world and that a financial mechanism should support developing countries and redistribute funds internationally.
BRIDGING THE ACTIVIST-INDUSTRY DIVIDE
While environmental organizations (such as OPLN member Greenpeace) and industry groups (such as OPLN member American Chemistry Council) may agree on some of the basic structures of a global agreement, challenging issues remain to be resolved.
Environmental groups are calling for binding targets for plastic reduction and enforceable mechanisms in the treaty, as well as restrictions on the production of new plastic from fossil fuels.
Many industry groups now believe that a contract without binding reduction targets can be successful and place strong emphasis on expanding advanced recycling or chemical recycling technologies. Many environmental activist groups see the advanced recycling models as a license to continue the status quo of consumption.
A seminal report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, SYSTEMIQ and various academic partners entitled “Breaking the Plastic Wave” points to a way to bridge this gap: We have to drastically expand both upstream solutions such as the reduction targets advocated by environmental groups and downstream solutions that the industry is committed to including repairing our broken mechanical recycling system and investing in new technology.
ACCELERATING GLOBAL CONTRACTS
How long will it take to bridge this gap? The path to the Paris Agreement began in 1991 with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and was continued in 1997 with the Kyoto Protocol and in 2009 with the failed meetings in Copenhagen. The Paris Agreement was finally signed in 2016, 25 years after the first framework was agreed.
The Montreal Protocol, which made a significant contribution to the repair of our ozone layer, was signed in 1987, 14 years after CFCs were classified as dangerous – quickly according to UN standards. An offshore contract to preserve the biological diversity of the seas in international waters has been discussed for 12 years.
However, there is a precedent for higher speed when it comes to a plastic problem. The Basel plastic changes contained plastic waste in a legally binding framework in order to make global trade in plastic waste more transparent and better regulated. This was a major achievement, and the time between the initial proposal and unanimous adoption by governments was just eight months, an unprecedented timeframe for negotiating an international agreement.
Reports like “Breaking the Plastic Wave” tell us that we are running out of time. We need to speed up both upstream and downstream solutions quickly to resolve this crisis. If we delay dramatic measures for just five years and meet current government and industry commitments, an additional 80 million tons of plastic will end up in the ocean by 2040 (or about half of all plastic that has accumulated since the beginning of the plastics era until now ).
To prevent this catastrophe for ocean ecosystems and human health and wellbeing, safe spaces must now be created for discussion between environmental and industrial groups. The only way forward is to approach the obstacles directly, believing that tension equals progress, and that all parties, regardless of their perspective and approach, should have a seat at the table.
If we are brave enough to have these talks, we have reason to be relentlessly optimistic that an ambitious plastics deal, commensurate with the scale and urgency of the problem, can be achieved in record time.