Global treaty talks will define how the world tackles plastics pollution for generations to come

At the end of November, I will find myself in Uruguay. I am 27 and when I tell friends my age that I am going to the first Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for a new international treaty on plastics pollution, they are either mildly intrigued, nod semi-enthusiastically trying not to invite further clarification or ask ‘Hasn’t CoP already happened?’.

Of course, UN negotiations are not everyone’s favourite topic, but when they have such drastic implications for our daily life, our health and the future of our planet, shouldn’t more people be aware?

Plastic tap installation outside the UN by artist Von Wong

Plastic tap art installation outside the UN Environment Assembly by artist Von Wong (c) EIA

The tale of how we got to this point, where governments of the world are gathering in the seaside town of Punta del Este to kick off the first round of negotiations to attempt to curb the worlds plastics crisis, is a long one and would be better told by those who have been at the forefront of the fight for years. For me, it started in March, watching from afar in London as the UN Environment Assembly agreed that a negotiating committee would be set up with the mandate to end plastic pollution by agreeing a new global treaty.

This was a landmark moment and will have a huge influence on the lives of people around the world. The plastics crisis is far more than the plastics that clog rivers, strangle marine life and pile up in dumpsites. These are, of course, the most visceral depictions of the problem, but plastics are fundamentally threatening our right to a clean environment and a future we can look forward to.

If that seems hyperbolic, let me share just some of the things I’ve learned this year. Plastics can contain countless additives, depending on their form or function. More than 10,000 chemicals have been identified in plastics and almost a quarter of them have been classified as substances of concern. What’s worse is that only nine per cent of all plastics ever produced have been recycled – the remainder is burnt or breaks down in the environment or dumpsites and these chemicals enter the air, the soil, the ocean and our food.

These are chemicals known to cause cancer, reduce fertility and a whole host of other serious conditions. As the physical plastic is starting to choke our planet, the chemicals are simultaneously poisoning us. Dealing with this crisis is one of the great environmental challenges of our time and is vital to our future.

Fish found choked with nurdles following the X-Press Pearl plastic pellet spill, 2021 (c) CEJ, Sri Lanka

And this leads us to Uruguay, the start of a two-and-a-half year negotiating process for a brand new treaty, not (yet) the corporate-captured circus of the UN climate summits, and a chance to steer us towards a brighter future. Along with the usual anxieties of a long-distance work trip, I am filled with hopes and fears for what is to come.

I hope that we won’t repeat the mistakes of the past and that we agree an environmental treaty that is actually capable of dealing with the task at hand. I hope we get to the root cause of the problem and start to phase down plastic production, turning off the tap to allow us to mop the floor. I hope countries and companies will be held to account for the plastics crisis and legally obliged to follow new global rules. For all these things, we must have a seat at the table for all those affected by the plastics crisis, including younger generations whose future will be defined by the outcome of these negotiations.

The first negotiations in Uruguay will, of course, be difficult and stepping into international negotiations for the first time is daunting, especially with the prospect of fossil extractors and petrochemical companies threatening to exert undue influence on the process, flooding rooms and funding meetings with slick corporate lobbyists sent by faceless boardrooms which have enriched themselves by poisoning our planet.

Plastic debris accumulated at Kaho‘olawe, Hawaii

Make no mistake – plastics are fossil fuels and are a major growth market for the fossil fuel industry, especially as the long-term future of oil, fossil gas and coal in the energy market diminishes. As the world tries to cure its addiction to their products, should these companies be allowed to consult on the treatment plan? They are under no illusions of how important this treaty could be – and so should all of us be.

The next two-and-a-half years, spent at negotiating tables in conference centres, will define how the world makes, use and dispose of plastics for generations to come. The defining legislation on climate change has failed us for longer than I have been alive.

Work on a Global Plastics Treaty warrants the attention of everyone, to hold those at the meeting to account and to secure a future we can look forward to.