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    Huge challenge looms to achieve pact on plastic

    Release Time:2022-09-13       Clicks:228

    Workers sort tens of thousands of plastic bottles in Brahmanbaria district, eastern Bangladesh. RATUL DHAR/SOLENT NEWS

    Historic turning point results in global plan to resolve crisis

    From the lowest depths of the oceans, to the dizzying heights of the troposphere, plastic is now everywhere.

    Scientists have found microscopic fragments of the material in the waters of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean and even in the air at the Pic du Midi Observatory in the French Pyrenees-known as a "clean station "because of its relative isolation from the world's pollutants.

    There are an estimated 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the oceans, and the material is detectable throughout the food chain, from where it finds its way into humans' bloodstreams and organs.

    The innumerable uses of plastic and the sheer volume in which it is produced have served to overwhelm voluntary pacts and agreements aimed at regulating the material.

    As a result, the UN's decision to negotiate a global treaty on plastics is viewed as a historic and timely move.

    At the latest UN Environment Assembly, or UNEA, in Nairobi, Kenya, earlier this year, nearly 200 nations agreed to negotiate over the next two years an internationally binding agreement to address the plastics crisis. The scope of the proposed treaty is far reaching, addressing not just marine and environmental considerations, but all aspects of the plastic life cycle.

    The treaty will potentially involve limits on the production of virgin plastics, as leaders agreed that reuse and recycling will not be sufficient to stem the tide of pollution from plastics or reduce the carbon footprint from manufacturing the material, which involves fossil fuels.

    Eirik Lindebjerg, global plastic policy manager at WWF International, said: "UNEA's decision was a historic turning point. It's a reflection that the patchwork of national and regional initiatives we currently have-which are mostly voluntary-aren't adequate to effectively and efficiently tackle the problem of plastic pollution."

    Peter Thomson, the UN secretary-general's special envoy for the ocean, drew comparisons between the treaty and two other major international agreements-the 1987 Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer and the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

    During a recent panel discussion organized by the campaign group A Plastic Planet, Thomson said of the assembly in Nairobi, "It was a moment we realized that multilateralism works, that we can do the right thing as member states."

    Leaders have until 2024 to negotiate various aspects of the treaty, including making key decisions on which elements of the pact will be legally binding. It is a short time by the standards of the UN, which took four years to negotiate the framework of the Paris Agreement, and seven years to finalize the so-called rulebook for the treaty after its adoption in 2015.

    Within this two-year period, opinions will differ on what constitutes an effective plastics plan. There will also be efforts to water down the treaty from stakeholders with an interest in maintaining the status quo.

    Graham Forbes, plastics project lead at Greenpeace USA, said, "We expect the fossil fuel industry to continue efforts to undermine progress by focusing on recycling, and we will be there with our allies to ensure a truly circular, full life cycle approach is taken."

    Christina Dixon, deputy campaign lead for oceans at the Environmental Investigation Agency, said some fossil fuel companies view plastics as a "plan B". In Europe, about 6 percent of oil and gas is used to make plastics, but this proportion is expected to grow now that alternatives for power and transportation free of fossil fuels are on the rise.

    Producing plastic is energy intensive and includes the use of fossil fuels. When incinerated, the material releases greenhouse gases back into the atmosphere.

    In the United States, a recent study by the University of California found that across their life cycle, plastics contribute 3.8 percent of global emissions. If the plastics industry were a country, it would be the fifth-largest emitter. Demand is expected to rise by about 4 percent annually, meaning that by 2050 greenhouse gases from plastics will account for 15 percent of global emissions.

    Dixon said: "The oil and gas industry will not be particularly thrilled to have caps or phasing down on virgin plastic production. There's a lot of data to substantiate that the growth of the plastics industry is part of their business model."

    Some fossil fuel industry players lobbied for a less expansive treaty ahead of the Nairobi assembly. The American Chemistry Council, a trade association that represents oil energy companies, including Shell and ExxonMobil, voiced support for an alternate and more limited treaty focused mainly on marine pollution and recycling.

    Dixon said that for the treaty to be a success, active support will be needed from the world's largest plastics producers, which include China and the US.

    She added, "National legislation in China has been quite progressive when it comes to plastics-for example, the banning of imports of plastic, and setting requirements for agricultural plastics."

    In 2018, China halted imports of plastic waste on environmental grounds, and the following year the country drafted new rules to control rural and agricultural pollution from plastics. In September, China published a five-year plan to tackle pollution.

    "It is interesting to see these policies happening domestically, which might shape opinion on international policy," Dixon said.

    Forbes, from Greenpeace, said nations and businesses must step up and take action while the treaty is being negotiated over the next two years.

    "In the interim, governments around the world must implement national policies that push big brands to phase out single-use plastic," he said.

    Last year, the European Union introduced legislation to phase out single-use plastics, starting with 10 common products, including cotton bud sticks, drinking straws and cutlery. Meanwhile, more than 250 companies have signed a pledge to eradicate plastic waste from packaging by 2025.

    Consumer products giant Unilever has promised to halve its use of virgin plastics by 2025 and reduce plastic used in packaging by 100,000 metric tons on 2018 levels. The company has also joined forces with Alibaba Group to launch a large-scale closed-loop plastic recycling system in China called Waste Free World.

    Ed Shepherd, senior global sustainability manager at Unilever, said, "Despite ambitious goals, innovation and significant investment, the (plastics) problem is actually getting worse.

    "It's become clear that this problem is systemic and fundamentally entrenched in the global economy. We've reached the point where we need a common framework that recognizes the true scale of this issue and the global nature of complex value chains."

    Shepherd said redesigning packaging to use less, better or no plastic at all will require cutting-edge science, technology and innovation.

    "A treaty that reduces virgin plastic production will create the right conditions to accelerate growth in new business models," he added.

    Nations criticized

    The proposed treaty will also attempt to improve waste management for plastics, encouraging nations to increase domestic capacity for recycling and waste-to-energy plants, and to reduce exports of plastic waste.

    European nations have again come under fire in recent weeks over their plastic waste export strategies after a Greenpeace investigation uncovered the illegal dumping and burning of foreign waste in Turkey.

    Following the Chinese ban on plastic waste imports in 2018, Turkey emerged as a leading destination for plastic waste exports from several European countries, including the United Kingdom and Germany.

    Greenpeace reported that Turkey is struggling to deal with a dramatic increase in shipped plastic waste which has led to irreversible environmental damage, according to the organization.

    Soil analysis at five sites in Turkey found more than 60 toxic chemicals. At one site, levels of dioxins and furans, which can cause a range of health problems, were found to be 400,000 times higher than at a control site, the highest-ever level reported in Turkish soil. Supermarket packaging indicated that some of the mismanaged waste at these sites originated from the UK.

    The Greenpeace investigation prompted the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, or DEFRA, to hold an evidence session late last month, which looked into UK waste export practices.

    Before imposing an import ban on environmental grounds, China was the main destination for plastic waste exports from Europe, accounting for 80 percent of such shipments. After the ban was introduced, numerous shipments were redirected to Southeast Asia, prompting several countries in the region to tighten import regulations.

    The European Union recently outlawed exports of many plastic waste materials to non-members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, and the UK has faced pressure to follow suit.

    The fallout has meant that Turkey, a member of the OECD, is now the leading destination for European plastic waste, which has risen almost 200 fold on 2004 levels, according to Eurostat, the EU's statistical office.

    At the recent evidence session, waste industry leaders urged DEFRA to consider a total ban on plastic waste exports, and not just limit exports to OECD nations.

    Forbes said environmental damage from the plastic waste trade highlights the need for the UN treaty.

    "The plastic crisis is a global crisis, because plastic supply chains are global and because pollution crosses international borders via the waste trade and the ocean," he said.

    "That's why we welcome this development and we will incessantly push for the adoption of a plastics treaty that matches the scale of the crisis."

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