The Guardian • Issue #2098


Plastics, treaties, and why capitalism will not save us

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2098

Older readers may remember when the media talked a lot about ‘arms treaties,’ limiting the number of and use of nuclear weapons. We are keeping our eyes on treaties between governments in Australia and Indigenous Australians – will they be good treaties? What’s in them?

Another sort of treaty we all need to know about is the Plastics Treaty. Plastics have been not just piling up and looking ugly, but also getting into the food chain. So much so that we’re all part of a huge experiment to see what effect having microscopic plastics throughout the human body has.

A lot of countries agree on plastic waste. There’s too much of the stuff, and it needs to be better managed. We all understand that, but a logical thing to think would be this: maybe we should stop making so much plastic in the first place. That way, there’d be less plastic waste to worry about, and less plastic to get into the food we eat and the liquids we drink. This isn’t just a hunch. Research has shown that the more plastic that’s made, the more waste there is. The more waste there is, the more plastic can get into our food chain.

Like a lot of things that sound like a simple and good idea, getting less plastic made runs into the problem of self-interest. Specifically, the self-interest of the people making money producing the stuff.

In Ottowa, Canada late this April, delegates to the Plastics Treaty negotiations worked late into the night to try to get the treaty done. The talks ended without much progress because of the issue of plastic production. The ‘High Ambition Coalition,’ a group of countries, campaigners, and scientists that really push hard for less plastic being made say that a Plastics Treaty won’t really work without limits on production. However other countries, mainly ones with powerful gas and oil interests, want to rule out any targets that limit the amount of plastic being made.

This is really important. If there are no limits, plastic production will triple by 2050. That’s what the petrochemical industry wants to do. Peru and Rwanda proposed a target of reducing plastic polymers by 40 per cent by 2040, using 2025 as a baseline.

Anyone who’s been following efforts to reduce Carbon Emissions will know that the baseline you choose is very important. Choosing baselines that mean that emitters don’t have to really reduce emissions in any meaningful way is one way Australian governments have been keeping carbon emissions high – and big donors happy.

28 countries signed a pledge, the ‘Bridge to Busan’ declaration to announce that they agree that having binding limits on plastic production is vital for an effective treaty. Australia was one of the signatories. Busan in Korea will be the location of the next treaty conference.

Surprise, surprise, Gas Outlook estimates there were 196 fossil fuel lobbyists at the conference in Ottowa. Some scientists reported being intimidated and harassed. The United States also played a part. Carroll Muffett, of the Centre for International Environmental Law said that the US “intentionally blocked” progress on the treaty, saying that the United States “needs to stop pretending to be a leader and own the failure it has created here.”

The ‘Bridge to Busan’ declaration can be read – and signed – at

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