Negotiators from around the world will start work this month on a treaty to reduce plastic pollution, in what diplomats say is the most ambitious round of climate diplomacy since the 2015 Paris agreement that focuses on global warming.
The discussions, which have the backing of the Biden administration, could reshape a world increasingly awash in plastics that take centuries to break down and millennia to decompose. Diplomats could agree to caps on plastic production that would forestall the exponential increases that are expected in the coming decades. They could also impose rules to make plastic easier and less toxic to repurpose, amid growing concern that only 10% of the material ever made has been recycled.
Talks are so preliminary that diplomats are still haggling over the issues they will and won't negotiate. And few expect immediate breakthroughs. But officials say there is a window during President Joe Biden's current term in office to make a deal that would shake up the realm of plastics with the cooperation of the United States, the world's biggest producer of plastic waste.
"Countries are increasingly seeing this as a top-level threat," said Norwegian Environment Minister Espen Barth Eide, who is leading the effort to start work on a plastics deal at the U.N. Environment Assembly, which starts Feb. 28 in Nairobi. "There has been strong recognition around the world. This is one of the most stable materials we produce. Using it for a single use, it's strange."
Diplomats are still at the most preliminary phase of deciding what should even be subject to negotiation. At minimum, there is broad agreement that there should be a concerted effort to limit the flow of plastic debris into the world's oceans. But a growing number of countries, including the United States, want to aim for more-ambitious targets.
Any agreement is likely to have the Paris climate accord as its basic model, diplomats say. That deal - which includes nearly 200 countries - came together only because countries knew they would be in charge of setting their own voluntary goals, then living up to them. Detractors say such systems are toothless and end up falling far short of what is necessary. Advocates say they get all countries to work together and move in the same basic direction. They also say that many countries would never agree to a system with more-stringent requirements.
As with the Paris agreement, one of the first issues a plastics treaty would address is the basic issue of counting: How much plastic is being manufactured? How much gets recycled? What kinds of chemicals are going into the plastic, and how are they being handled when the plastic is discarded? In much of the world, there aren't reliable numbers.
The effort comes from a growing concern that the world has failed to grapple with a rapidly expanding plastics problem and that older attempts to address plastic waste - for example, by focusing mostly on recycling - can't stand on their own.
"Our goal is to create a tool that we can use to protect our oceans and all of the life that they sustain from growing global harms of plastic pollution," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in Nairobi in November. "It's crucial that the agreement call on countries to develop and enforce strong national action plans to address this problem at its source."
Activists and environmental policymakers around the world have called for a broad effort to address plastics pollution, which they say is as much a global problem as the increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that are fueling climate change. And, as with climate change, the least-developed countries have often faced the greatest burden of the problem. Rich countries such as the United States have been shipping much of their plastic waste elsewhere, first to China and more recently to African nations.
"The African region becomes the region that has to bear the brunt, especially because there is no infrastructure" for recycling, said Griffins Ochieng, a plastics expert at the Nairobi-based Center for Environmental Justice and Development. "But with the increased importation of plastic waste and near-end-life products, it literally becomes dumping, because these are all going to end up in landfills or dumpsites."
Researchers who have tried to estimate the amount of plastic waste streaming into the world's oceans have come up with astonishing figures. One high-profile 2015 study found that more than 8 million metric tons of plastic were probably entering global waters every year. That's the equivalent of five grocery bags filled with plastic on every foot of coastline, all around the world, or a dump truck's worth of plastic going into the ocean every minute.
"That was shocking," said Jenna Jambeck, a University of Georgia professor who was the lead researcher on the study. She said that for her, the problem of plastic pollution really hit home a few years ago when she sailed across the Atlantic to study it. She was staring into the ocean on a beautiful beach on one of the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago off the northwest coast of Africa.
"I walked up to the edge of the ocean where the waves were breaking on land, and it looks beautiful, and then I look down and every wave was full of plastic that I hadn't seen, like confetti," Jambeck said. "The ocean is literally spitting this material back at us. It made me almost sick."
The plastic waste problem plagues all levels of the ecosystem. There are the familiar images of turtles choking on straws, or birds whose stomachs are filled with plastic debris. But there is also increasing concern about the pervasiveness of microplastics - particles smaller than a sesame seed that have been broken down by ocean currents. In fish, microplastics have been found to disrupt reproductive systems and suppress appetite, upending the balance of sea life. Microplastics are piling up on the ocean's floor and collecting in eddies on its surface.
Plastics became widely available in the years after World War II, when wartime manufacturers shifted their production lines to the consumer market. Advertisements pitched at 1950s housewives praised the magic of serving meals on plastic plates and cups. (No cleanup!) And global plastic production is accelerating: More than half the plastic ever made has been produced since 2000, according to estimates from Jambeck's lab.
Much of it comes from the United States, which topped the world at 287 pounds of plastic waste per person per year, according to a 2020 estimate by a team of U.S. researchers. Britain and South Korea followed.
The pandemic has worsened the problem, sparking a sharp rise in single-use plastic food containers, shipping materials and masks. In South Korea, plastic waste went up 19% in 2020 over the previous year, according to official figures.
South Korean student Daniel Lee recently came home to a "plastic epidemic" upon returning to Seoul from his college overseas, he said. During a mandatory 10-day quarantine, Lee was banned from stepping out of his apartment and ended up relying heavily on food delivery and e-commerce for his daily necessities, which resulted in a "pile of plastic waste."
"It was inevitable during quarantine, but I found it hard to justify," said Lee, 25.
South Korea has expressed its general support for a plastics treaty and has vowed to cut its plastic waste, but it has struggled to track the problem, something a treaty would help encourage, said Jang Yong-chul, a professor of environmental engineering at Chungnam National University.
"South Korea has a long way to go," he said.
The exponential growth in plastic production looks set to continue. As the oil and gas industry searches for new markets as fossil fuels are phased out in the coming decades, it has fixed its hopes on plastics, which use many of the same raw materials. The plastics industry says its materials do everything from keeping food fresher to lightening cars and trucks to make them more fuel-efficient.
"Years ago, we were told to watch our carbon footprint. Now it's, 'What's your plastic footprint?'" said Judith Enck, a former senior Environmental Protection Agency official during the Obama administration who now leads Beyond Plastics, an advocacy organization. "Well, it's pretty big, because you're not giving me any choices."
The sharp growth path has environmentalists around the world crying out for limits. One major problem is that recycling, which the plastic industry has long promoted as a way to win the acceptance of consumers, can handle only a fraction of the plastic that is produced. Only some types of plastics are easily recyclable. Many recycling programs create toxins as waste products. China, which had been importing much of the world's plastic waste for reprocessing, ended the practice in 2018, in part because of environmental concerns.
"Recycling plastics is actually recycling toxins back into the market," said Bjorn Beeler, international coordinator at the International Pollutants Elimination Network, an advocacy and research group.
Beeler and other plastic-skeptic allies favor what they call a "life cycle" approach to a plastics treaty - an effort to cap the overall production of plastics; limit the chemicals that can be used to make them, so they are safer to dispose of and recycle; and promote product designs that are easier to reuse.
The plastics industry says it wants an agreement but one that it says would create more incentives for private businesses to come up with innovative ways to address plastic pollution.
Restricting and regulating the production of plastic "is a very shortsighted approach to take," said Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics at the American Chemistry Council, the trade association for chemicals manufacturers, "because not only are we in the midst of a supply chain crisis where everything from raw materials to finished products are very difficult to get your hands on, we're going to then on top of that put some massive regulation scheme that will be very difficult to implement and will probably result in further supply chain disruption when we least can afford it."
Unlike efforts to combat climate change, fighting plastics pollution has found bipartisan support in the United States, since it is less politicized. A pair of senators, Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., have led congressional efforts, including the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act, which President Donald Trump signed into law in 2020.
"Our oceans are in trouble," Whitehouse said in a statement. "My hope is that American negotiators in Nairobi can lead the world toward a global agreement that will cut down the amount of plastic reaching the oceans."
Policymakers say they are hopeful about reaching an agreement, even if they need to discuss it for a year or two.
"I don't think we will have all answers to this by the end of February, and that's okay. The point is to start a process," said Barth Eide, the Norwegian minister. He said he believed the effort could make a difference.
“Some of these treaties actually work,” he said.