How a new treaty could clean up plastic waste

In much of the world, the task of collecting, sorting and recycling plastics often falls to informal scavengers who work amid fires and toxic fumes for little pay. In a historic move, the Nairobi Accord for the first time officially recognized the importance of waste pickers in the plastics economy.

“We waste pickers need to be involved in this process,” said Silvio Ruiz Grisales from Bogotá, Colombia, who started working in landfills when he was 12 years old. He is now a leader of the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Waste Pickers, a group that campaigns for better wages, working conditions and recognition.

“We work in the garbage 12, 14 or 16 hours a day,” he said. “It’s a poverty trap.”

Among other conditions, Wednesday’s agreement specifies that any global treaty must be legally binding and must cover the full life cycle of plastics, from production to disposal, recycling and reuse. Delegates said they hoped to model the treaty on the Paris climate accord, under which countries set binding targets but are able to meet those targets using a range of different policies.

The treaty is also to address packaging design to reduce plastic use, improve recycling and make technical and financial assistance available to developing countries. Under Wednesday’s agreement, it must also tackle microplastics, the tiny plastic debris created by the breakdown of plastics over time. Microplastics have been detected by scientists in deep ocean waters, seashells, drinking water and even falling rain.

During the negotiations, some of these points were objected to by countries including the United States, Japan and India, according to three people familiar with the talks who were not authorized to speak publicly about the details of the negociation.

Japan initially submitted a competing resolution focused on marine plastics. India threatened to derail negotiations on the final day, insisting any action must be on a “voluntary basis”, according to a list of demands privately submitted by the Indian delegation and reviewed by The New York Times.

Bryce K. Locke