Modern Australian

We need a legally binding treaty to make plastic pollution history

  • Written by Trisia Farrelly, Senior Lecturer, Massey University

A powerful marriage between the fossil fuel and plastic industries threatens to exacerbate the global plastic pollution crisis. The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) estimates the next five years will see a 33-36% surge in global plastics production.

This will undermine all current efforts to manage plastic waste. It is time to stop trying (and failing) to bail out the bathtub. Instead, we need to turn off the tap.

Read more: The major source of ocean plastic pollution you've probably never heard of

The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) has recognised plastic pollution as a “rapidly increasing serious issue of global concern that needs an urgent global response”. An expert group formed last year proposed an international treaty on plastic pollution as the most effective response.

Together with Giulia Carlini, at CIEL, I was part of a 30-strong group of non-governmental organisations within this expert group attending the UNEA summit this week to discuss how we can start making plastic pollution history.

Unfortunately, despite strong statements from developing countries, including the Pacific Island states, a small group of countries stalled negotiations. This effectively turns back the clock on ambitious global action, and leaves us more desperate than ever for a real solution to our plastic problem.

Why we need a treaty

The first step is to reject the many false solutions that pop up in our news feeds.

Recycling is one of those false solutions. The scale of plastic production is too big for recycling alone. Of all the plastics produced between 1950 and 2015, only 9% have been recycled. This figure is set to plummet as China and a growing number of developing countries are rejecting plastic waste from Australia, New Zealand and the rest of the world.

China had been a major destination for Australia and New Zealand’s recyclable waste. China’s shutdown meant Australia lost the market for a third of its plastic waste. It also left New Zealand with 400 tonnes of stockpiled plastic waste last year.

With limited domestic recycling facilities, Australia and New Zealand are seeking new markets. Last year, New Zealand sent about 250,000 tonnes of plastic to landfill, and a further 6,300 tonnes to Malaysia for recycling. But now Malaysia is also rejecting other countries’ hazardous plastic waste.

We need a legally binding treaty to make plastic pollution history Sending our platic to Asia is not a solution. EPA/Diego Azubel, CC BY-SA

Even if we manage to find new plastic recycling markets, there is another problem. Recycling is not as safe as you might think. Flame retardants and other toxins are added to many plastics, and these compounds find a second life when plastics are recycled into new products, including children’s toys.

Plastic-to-energy is a false solution

What about burning plastic waste to generate energy? Think again. Incineration is expensive, can take decades for investors to break even. It is the opposite of a “zero waste” approach and locks countries into a perpetual cycle of producing and importing waste to “feed the beast”. And incineration leaves a legacy of contaminated air, soil, and water.

Producing lower-grade materials from plastic waste (such as roads, fenceposts and park benches) is not the solution either. No matter where we put it, plastic doesn’t go away. It just breaks into ever smaller pieces with a greater potential for harm in air, water, soil and marine and freshwater ecosystems.

This is why researchers are paying more attention to the less visible hazards posed when micro (less than 5mm long) and nano (less than 100 nanometres long) sized plastics carry pathogens, invasive species and persistent organic pollutants. They have found that plastics can emit methane contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

Tyres wear down into microplastics which find their way into the ocean. When plastics break down to nanoparticles, they are small enough to pass through cell walls. Our clothes release plastic microfibres into water from washing machines.

Plastic is truly global

Plastic pollution moves readily around the globe. It travels through trade, on winds, river and tidal flows, and in the guts of migrating birds and mammals. We don’t always know which toxic chemicals are in them, nor their recycled content. Plastic pollution can end up thousands of kilometres from the source.

This makes plastic pollution a matter of international concern. It cannot be solved solely within national borders or regions. A global, legally binding treaty with clear targets and standards is the real game-changer we urgently need.

The NGO component of UNEA’s expert group recognised an international treaty as the most effective response. The proposed treaty has the potential to capture the full life cycle of plastics by focusing on prevention, right at the top of the waste hierarchy.

We need a legally binding treaty to make plastic pollution history The Zero Waste hierarchy. Zero Waste Europe

These solutions could include restricting the volume of new or “virgin” plastics in products, banning avoidable plastics (such as single-use plastic bags and straws), and curbing the use of toxic additives.

Read more: We can't recycle our way to 'zero waste'

More than 90 civil society organisations around the world and a growing number of countries have indicated early support for a treaty. Australia and New Zealand have not.

Authors: Trisia Farrelly, Senior Lecturer, Massey University

Read more http://theconversation.com/we-need-a-legally-binding-treaty-to-make-plastic-pollution-history-113351

NEWS

Lies, obfuscation and fake news make for a dispiriting – and dangerous – election campaign

The integrity of Australia's election process is under unprecedented pressure during this election.Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-NDThe integrity of Australia’s electoral processes is under unprecedented challenge in this federal election.The...

What's the school cleaner's name? How kids, not just cleaners, are paying the price of outsourcing

In Victoria in 1992, every government-employed school cleaner was terminated overnight.from shutterstock.comThis is an edited extract from The New Disruptors, the 64th edition of Griffith Review. It is a little...

how Western attitudes towards Islam have changed

Muslim clerics and members of the Pakistani Christian minority light candles to commemorate the victims of this week's bomb blasts in Sri Lanka. Islamic State has claimed responsibility for...

Vital signs. Zero inflation means the Reserve Bank should cut rates as soon as it can, on Tuesday week

The last time inflation was zero the Reserve Bank cut rates twice. It'll get the chance on May 7.ShutterstockWhat do US pizza executive Herman Cain, US conservative commentator Stephen Moore...

Bizarrely distributed and verging on extinction, this 'mystic' tree went unidentified for 17 years

Flowers of the mystical Hildegardia australiensis. I.D. Cowie, NT Herbarium.Author provided (No reuse)Sign up to the Beating Around the Bush newsletter here, and suggest a plant we should cover at...

Why the idea of alien life now seems inevitable and possibly imminent

Relative sizes of planets that are in a zone potentially compatible with life: Kepler-22b, Kepler-69c, Kepler-62e, Kepler-62f and Earth (named left to right; except for Earth, these are artists' renditions).NASA...

Think you're allergic to penicillin? There's a good chance you're wrong

A rash people assume is a reaction to penicillin may not be related to the drug at all.From shutterstock.comAre you allergic to penicillin? Perhaps you have a friend or relative...

'you’re always commenting on power'

Podcasters can introduce new voices to the conversations about the cities we live in.Salim October/ShutterstockMore and more podcasts about cities are being produced by journalists and academics. They’re being recorded...

you have the chance to stop fuelling devastation in the Amazon

Deforestation in the Amazon has accelerated since Brazilian president Bolsonaro scrapped environmental laws.ShutterstockThe effects of European consumption are being felt in Brazil, driving disastrous deforestation and violence. But the destruction...

All is forgiven in the Liberal embrace of Palmer

This election is acquiring quite a few back-to-the-future touches.There’s John Howard, in robust campaign mode. One of those he’s spruiking for is the embattled Tony Abbott, with a letter to...

Bat and bird poo can tell you a lot about ancient landscapes in Southeast Asia

A bat in a cave among the poo.Christopher Wurster, Author providedThe islands of Sumatra, Borneo and Java were once part of a much larger landmass connected to Asia called Sundaland...

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the Sri Lanka terror attack. Here's what that means

In the wake of any tragedy, it should be enough to grieve and stand in solidarity with those who mourn. With a massive toll – at least 359 dead and...

Popular articles from Modern Australian

What to Do When Traveling From Australia to USAWhat we should know about ‘nitric oxide’ and why we need more of itDownsizing: What Is Too Small?5 unique ways to extract toxins from your bodyThe Art Of Bell-RingingModern Snapback Hats trending in Australia6 Mistakes to Avoid When Moving Overseas5 Tips Designed to Help Accentuate Your Hourglass FigureRoyal Edinburgh Military TattooThe inaugural Bondi Ocean Lovers FestivalHow to Plan a Remodeling at Home: Tips and TricksAchieving Facial Symmetry with RhinoplastyHow to Choose the Best Colors for Your BedroomFind Here the 3 Best Online Pokies in AustraliaHair Loss and Transplant Solutions