UN Summit Advances Toward Plastic Pollution Treaty


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May 22, 2023

UN Summit Advances Toward Plastic Pollution Treaty

A United Nations-backed effort to devise an international treaty to address the

A United Nations-backed effort to devise an international treaty to address the global plastics crisis just concluded a week-long summit in Paris.

Maria Ivanova, Northeastern's director of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, who has been directly involved in the negotiations, participated in the summit. She's been serving as a delegate on the International Science Council—one of the world's leading organizations for scientific advancement, that works to catalyze global action on pressing issues—and advising several nations throughout the plastic negotiations.

Ivanova tells Northeastern Global News that she started working on the issue of plastic pollution when she joined the Rwandan delegation to the United Nations Environment Assembly in March 2022. The problem of plastic pollution has started to come to a head more recently amid the growing evidence linking plastic production and use to a range of health problems in humans.

"[Plastic] poses unimaginable threats—we don't know them yet—to human health," Ivanova says. "It's a very severe crisis in human health, but also in planetary health."

Plastic production and use is ubiquitous across many societies around the world. The polymer-based material can be found in everything from grocery bags and utensils to car parts and food containers, among countless everyday items and consumer products. Roughly 9.2 billion tons of plastic waste has been created since 1950—less than 10% of which has been recycled, according to the U.N.

The stated goal of the International Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution, which is part of the United Nations Environment Assembly, is the total "elimination of plastic pollution." Last week's summit was the second in a series of talks expressly aimed at creating a legally binding, cradle-to-grave international treaty to end plastic pollution by 2040. The next meeting is slated for November 2023 in Nairobi, Kenya.

"As you can imagine, a commitment to eliminate plastic pollution by 2040 is a very ambitious goal," Ivanova says.

Ivanova characterized last week's talks as productive, but alluded to the fact that certain nations’ vested interests in fossil fuels remain an ongoing challenge.

"Plastics are made out of fossil fuels, so you can imagine that some of the fossil fuel-producing countries might hesitate to support these goals," she says.

In March 2022, representatives from 175 countries convened in Nairobi, Kenya, to approve a resolution that kicked off negotiations on the proposed treaty—an effort led by Rwanda and Peru.

Ivanova says the treaty must include several key steps that would need to be taken to reduce plastic production and consumption—and in turn—pollution.

"Number one, we need to put a price on plastic production," she says. "If we make the primary plastic polymers expensive, we can curb production and reduce pollution."

Ivanova says plastic design is also key. Plastics need to be designed such that they are easily recyclable. "As it stands, it's very difficult to recycle plastics because they come in a thousand different varieties," she says. "We’re pushing for a more uniform product design."

Proper waste management is also vital, which includes reducing and managing plastic waste, but also setting global targets on waste. Waste management goes hand in hand with robust monitoring and reporting systems, which all countries would need to implement to track their waste contributions. Ivanova says it's in developing these systems that universities, such as Northeastern, can have an impact.

All of this wouldn't be possible without a financing mechanism that allows countries to economically phase out plastics. According to the MacArthur Foundation, plastic production accelerated from 15 million tons in the 1960s to 311 million tons in 2014—with another doubling expected to take place over the next 20 years. Ivanova says the key to solving the plastics problem requires investing in plastic alternatives.

Ivanova says she hopes Northeastern can become a global leader in the fight to shape plastic pollution solutions.

"We have a … number of faculty … working in the natural sciences around plastics—whether in the chemicals used in plastics, or in the engineering of plastics, plastic alternatives, and also [plastic] exposure" and how it impacts our students," Ivanova says.

"We also have social scientists who study human behavior or engage with policymakers to shape the public policy of plastics," she adds. "Humanities scholars can also tell the compelling stories of plastic production and pollution."

Tanner Stening is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @tstening90.