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|Above, marine debris washed ashore a beach on Laysan Island in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge. The U.N. Environment Assembly meets in early 2022 and may endorse the beginning of official negotiations over a plastics treaty. Photo: Susan White/USFWS Click to enlarge.|
TipSheet: Will 2022 See the Start of Formal Negotiations Toward a Global Plastics Treaty?
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is one in a series of special reports from SEJournal that looks ahead to key issues in the coming year. Visit the full “2022 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report for more.
By Joseph A. Davis
The coming year may see real progress on a global treaty to limit plastic waste pollution — and that may mean significant news on the environment beat.
And while the story may be global in scope, there will be plenty of near-home angles to help you connect it to your audience.
Certainly there will be news on the international level. Preliminary international talks have already begun. Another step forward may come when the United Nations Environment Assembly, the governing body of nations behind the U.N. Environment Programme, meets in Nairobi February 28-March 2, 2022.
It remains to be seen if the UNEA will endorse the beginning of official negotiations over a plastics treaty. Either way, much remains to be settled if any global plastics treaty is to come together. Will it be narrow or broad? Limited to marine pollution and international transfers of plastic waste? Or try to address the entire life cycle of plastics in commerce and our daily lives?
Why it matters
Plastics are part of the modern consumer economy. They solve certain business problems, like packaging, and they are relatively flexible, cheap and convenient. As a result, their use has been growing in recent decades. Some industries have ambitious plans to increase their manufacture and use. The World Economic Forum predicts that plastic production will double in the next 20 years.
But plastics have become a pollution problem. You may find evidence of this in plastic litter at your local park or beach. But the news media (and activist groups) find a fascinating manifestation in the Pacific Ocean gyres (the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”), which consist of a high proportion of floating plastic waste. Concern mounted after a disturbing 2015 video of a plastic straw being removed from a sea turtle’s nose.
Ultimately, a bigger issue may be “microplastics.”
They are almost everywhere, although how
harmful they are remains an ongoing question.
Ultimately, a bigger issue may be “microplastics.” On land and at sea, plastics wear into small particles which do not degrade further quickly (or at all). They are almost everywhere. Microscopic plastic particles find their way into the water we drink, swim and fish in, and ultimately into the food we ingest.
How harmful they are remains an ongoing question. But they are known to be shed from plastic containers (parents might want to rethink that plastic baby bottle they have been warming in the microwave).
Microplastics as an aerosol floating in the atmosphere create further problems. Recently, for instance, concern has arisen over what effect plastic aerosols may have on climate change.
As with many environmental issues, political forces may distort how we think about plastics. Alternatives to letting them pollute the environment may include landfill disposal or recycling. But the plastics we dutifully put in those blue bins do not always get recycled. Plastics buried in landfills may leach harmful chemicals into groundwater.
But there may be many worse places for them to end up than in a landfill. Burning plastics may not be such a great idea — while incineration may yield usable energy, it also can emit toxic dioxins into the atmosphere.
Efforts have been underway for some years to forge an international plastics treaty. If you follow these things, you know that reaching agreement on any environmental treaty is quite difficult. Witness climate. But the international conversation is already well begun.
In June 2020, a U.K. group, the Environmental Investigation Agency, called for a global agreement in a document called “Convention on Plastic Pollution.”
In October 2020, a coalition of businesses and NGOs, organized by the World Wildlife Fund, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Boston Consulting Group, published a manifesto, “The Business Call for a UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution,” calling on nations to “fundamentally rethink the way we produce, use, reuse, and dispose of plastic” (here’s the full report).
Then March 2021 saw the beginnings of a several-months-long “Global Plastics Treaty Dialogues,” a conversation organized by the Ocean Plastics Leadership Network that included participants from 34 countries.
All of this offers reasons to expect possible action in Nairobi in Feb. 2022.
Local story ideas
- What happens to the plastics that are collected by your local solid waste agencies? How far can you trace the plastics that go into the blue “recycling” bins?
- Does your city, state or region have any incinerators that burn plastic waste? What can you find out about any resulting air pollution?
- Do you find plastic waste in — or on the shores of — local lakes, streams or beaches? What can you find out about its source?
- Are there companies or plants near you that produce or sell products that could generate plastic waste? What do they think about efforts to control it?
- Can you find local or regional efforts (whether citizen-led or governmental) to clean, control or dispose of plastic trash? What do they think about a treaty?
- Ocean Plastics Leadership Network: Its members range from Dow Chemical to Greenpeace.
- U.S. Plastics Pact: A consortium of over 850 organizations — governments, NGOs, companies and research organizations.
- Plastic Pollution Coalition: This antipollution activist group includes 1,200 organizations, businesses and leaders from 75 countries.
- World Wide Fund for Nature: This nonprofit conservation advocacy group has a “no plastic in nature” campaign.
- Environmental Investigation Agency: This U.K.-based advocacy group works by investigating problems, including plastic pollution.
- Center for International Environmental Law: This multi-issue think tank includes plastic pollution as one of its concerns.
- International Council of Chemical Associations: An industry advocacy group with global reach that takes various positions and initiatives on plastics, and some of whose members are part of an Alliance To End Plastic Waste.
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 38. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here,