Plastic Pollution: from Drowning to Drafting
In recent decades, we have seen a rapid and overwhelming increase in plastic pollution. The production of single-use plastic has more than doubled,1 leading to an overwhelming amount of plastic waste,2 which is drowning people in low- and middle-income countries. These cries for help have not gone unnoticed, and a potential life raft in the form of a Global Plastic Treaty is being negotiated to drastically reduce plastic pollution in the future. This is a once-in-a-generation chance to make a real and significant impact to counter the devastating health, social, environmental, and economic emergencies caused by plastic pollution.
History in the Making—what is the Global Plastics Treaty?
In March 2021, at an annual conference held by the United Nations Environment Programme, an historic resolution was reached with 175 countries, including New Zealand. Representatives agreed to develop an international legally binding agreement to address the full lifecycle of plastic, including its production, design and disposal by the end of 2024.
The Treaty will be negotiated and drafted with input from countries, Non-government Organisations (NGOs), companies, and a wide range of civil society stakeholders. Tearfund is campaigning and advocating for a treaty that fully addresses the impacts of waste on people living in poverty. Our call is for a treaty that will include the following measures:
- Reduction: legally binding targets to reduce plastic production and scale-up reuse solutions
- Recycling: universal access to waste collection and recycling
- Respect: support for waste pickers, including a just transition
- Response: mechanisms to ensure businesses and governments take action
Learning from the past—why do we need a Global Plastics Treaty?
For years, countries have attempted to tackle the problem of plastic pollution within their borders. Unfortunately, these efforts have been insufficient as plastic pollution continues to increase with devastating consequences. The newly proposed treaty aims to address this issue globally by recognising that a coordinated international approach is necessary. The treaty will establish a mechanism to hold governments and companies accountable to bring about real change as quickly as possible.
The treaty aims to tackle plastic pollution by adopting a "full life-cycle approach" that addresses both the symptoms and causes of the problem. However, it's important to consider the potential impact on the 20 million people who rely on plastic for their livelihoods as waste pickers.3 These people play a vital role in the global recycling system, collecting 60% of recycled plastic.4 Tearfund supports those in the informal waste sector to ensure they are recognised and their specific needs are protected in the final treaty document.
Two women work collecting plastic bottles for recycling.
A vision for the future—when will we see a Treaty?
In 2021, an agreement was made to form an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) to work on a draft treaty. The committee started working in 2022 and is expected to complete the draft by the end of 2024. To aid this work, the INC has planned five week-long meetings with delegates from almost 200 governments, and a range of stakeholder groups, including scientists, companies, NGOs, campaigners, and alliances, such as the International Alliance of Waste Pickers whom our Tearfund family is supporting.
The first meeting was held in November 2022, with further meetings scheduled for May and November 2023, April 2024, and finally, November 2024. These meetings are crucial to the success of the treaty, and we are preparing information to educate, update, and convince those involved in the negotiations to adopt a rights-based approach in the treaty that recognises the human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, as well as just and favourable working conditions and protection against unemployment.
*Widi sits with his parents who work as waste pickers in Suwung, Indonesia.
New Zealand in the present—how are we engaging with the treaty process?
The New Zealand Government has supported a treaty to end plastic pollution since the beginning. In 2022, it joined other nations to create the High Ambition Coalition, which is committed to developing a legally binding agreement to tackle the issue by 2040. While the government attends INC meetings and supports a robust treaty, we hope to see their actions align with their words as negotiations progress. Tearfund NZ will continue to communicate with the government to influence its stance and urge it to use its position to promote binding global commitments that hold both governments and companies accountable, and set strong targets, to create a fair playing field for all.
Your role, here and now—will I make a difference?
It's important to be mindful that plastic pollution has consequences beyond just the environment. Those living in poverty are especially affected by its far-reaching and long-lasting impacts. If we don't take action, global plastic consumption could triple by 2060.5 You can help change the future of plastic pollution and make a difference by signing our petition and joining the thousands of others working towards a just solution to this issue.
Together, we can bring real change to those living in poverty.
1. OECD (2022) Global Plastics Outlook 2022.
2. Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2016) The New Plastics Economy: rethinking the future of plastics https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/the-new-plastics-economy-rethinking-the-future-of-plastics
3. International Labour Office (2013) Sustainable development, decent work and green jobs.
4. Lau, Winnie W. Y. et al (2020) Evaluating scenarios toward zero plastic pollution. https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.aba9475
5. OECD (2022) Global Plastics Outlook: Policy Scenarios to 2060.