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There are no data on global plastic pollution equivalent to regular measurements of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. But as with greenhouse gases, recent news has been almost all bad. In 1950, the world production of plastics amounted to 2 million tons per year. In 2020, it was 367 million tons (against 368 million the previous year due to the coronavirus pandemic). Such a huge increase is hard to imagine. But the estimated 8.8 million tonnes of plastic waste that enters the global marine environment each year is equivalent to a garbage truck full of plastic dumped into the sea every minute.

So the agreement reached by 173 countries at the UN environment assembly in Nairobi last week was a huge relief. Finally, something is going to be done multilaterally about a problem that no government can solve on its own. Without the legally binding treaty that will be negotiated over the next two years, it was hard to see where progress would come from.

The announcement was just the beginning of a long and difficult process. Pollution and the destruction of nature are material phenomena. As with reducing emissions (or not), fine words about plastics mean nothing if they are not accompanied by strong actions, including mechanisms to ensure reductions in consumption. Plastic pollution is closely linked to economic growth, and changing our way of life will not be easy. But as a statement of intent and proof that multilateral cooperation to protect our common environment is still possible, the agreement is more than welcome. Like global warming, plastic pollution is a matter of social justice as well as conservation, with people in poor countries suffering disproportionately.

As with emissions, the wealthiest countries and corporations are the worst culprits. Research for the US federal government last year found that Americans now generate about 42 million tons of plastic waste a year, more than all European Union member countries combined. Another report revealed that 20 companies are responsible for generating 55% of the world’s plastic waste. Some are the same companies responsible for producing fossil fuels, since plastics are made from petrochemicals.

Efforts to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and television images of plastic waste in an albatross nest have imprinted themselves on the public consciousness in countries where these reports have been widely seen. But efforts by policymakers to address the plastic problem have been limited to waste management, including import bans on plastic waste imposed by China and other countries, and restrictions in many countries on the sale of single-use plastic items such as bags.

These measures can have localized effects and influence attitudes and behaviors. But they haven’t touched on the source of the problem: the total amount of plastic waste in the world is expected to almost quadruple by 2050 and the oil industry is heavily invested in expanding, in part to cope with the decline. demand in other areas as people switch to greener technologies. This must change. In the words of ocean activist Christina Dixon, the “The plastic valve must be closed”.

* Guest editorial by The Guardian.

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Bryce K. Locke