Marine plastic pollution.

A blue plastic bag which was found washed ashore on Kedonganan Beach and collected on February 02, 2021 in Kedonganan, Bali, Indonesia.

(Photo: Agung Parameswara/Getty Images)

The US Shouldn’t Stand in the Way of an Ambitious Global Plastics Treaty

The United States has so far backed country-specific over global plastic-reduction targets, but relying on national targets alone undermines the sincerity and cohesiveness of a global effort to reduce plastics and their associated emissions.

On this World Oceans Day, by far the largest threat to ocean health is plastic production and pollution. So policymakers and marine lovers alike should be paying attention to the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution, which wrapped up meetings in Paris last week with a mandate to create an internationally binding treaty on plastic production, reuse, and pollution by the end of 2024.

Comprising an estimated 85% of all ocean waste, 11 million tons of plastic enter the ocean annually—an amount that the United Nations estimates will triple within the next 20 years if nothing changes. Discarded plastic and insidious microplastics fill the stomachs of fish, marine mammals, and sea birds. Plastic debris has been found embedded in sea ice and deep-sea sediment, and even floating ominously in the deepest depths of our planet, the Mariana Trench.

Plastic threatens our oceans in a less obvious way as well. The fossil-fuel-driven plastics industry is one of the single greatest contributors to climate change, accounting for nearly as many greenhouse gas emissions as the aviation and international shipping sectors combined, making the plastic industry one of the leading causes of rapidly rising ocean temperatures. The ocean is a massive natural heat sink, absorbing 90% of global warming over the last few decades.

The U.S. is neither above the causes, nor immune to the effects, of global plastic pollution.

At the same time, the ocean absorbs an estimated 30% of all carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, making it at once our most precious ally in the fight against global warming, and our most critically triaged victim of that same fight. As increased saturation of carbon dioxide leads to ocean acidification, coral reef ecosystems—critical to protecting erosion-prone coastlines—are dying at an alarming rate. Kelp forests, capable of sequestering an estimated 200 million tons of carbon annually, are likewise struggling to adapt to warmer waters.

The U.N. Environmental Programme’s circularity platform proposes a ground-up reimagining of how plastics are initially produced, shifting from massive production of single-use disposable or recyclable items to fewer products meant to be reused, repurposed, repaired, and refurbished.

Shifting how the world views plastic production, usage, and lifecycle will require a coordinated international effort. Much of last week’s debate in Paris focused on whether the treaty should codify such efforts as national or global targets. The United States maintained the position that it has previously argued to the Committee meeting: that national targets would create a “race to the top,” boosting innovation and leading to more ambitious plastic reuse or recycling projects.

But national targets alone will not be enough to enact the sea change we now need (an apt pun). The U.S.’s position erodes the bold and hopeful leadership that the leaders of the G7, including President Biden, expressed mere weeks ago in Hiroshima, when they called for global cooperation to “end to plastic pollution, with the ambition to reduce additional plastic pollution to zero by 2040.”

Relying on national targets alone undermines the sincerity and cohesiveness of a global effort to reduce plastics and their associated emissions. A disjointed constellation of national policies creates loopholes that international corporations responsible for much of large-scale plastics production can exploit to circumvent local restrictions and continue their harmful practices. It eliminates the prospect of an enforceable global ban on particularly harmful chemicals and polymers, fractures any attempt at true circularity, and jeopardizes reporting, monitoring, and transparency efforts by allowing each nation to establish its own pace and priorities.

Most importantly, without the global enforcement mechanism of rules that apply to all governments, developing nations most at risk from plastic pollution and climate disaster may be left to deal with the devastating local effects of decisions made elsewhere. Led by the increasingly threatened island nation of Mauritius, the High Ambition Coalition warned ahead of last month’s G7 Summit that this has become a matter of life or death, with “countries on the frontlines already… reaching limits to their ability to adapt” to rising sea levels and temperatures.

These threats are on America’s shores as well. In the U.S. territories of Guam and American Samoa, marine biodiversity is directly threatened by plastic pollution, and rising sea levels increasingly endanger infrastructure, industry, and agriculture. The Hawai’i Wildlife Fund clears 15 to 20 tons of plastic debris from Hawai’ian shores each year, much of it abandoned fishing gear known as “ghost gear,” a death trap to marine life that encounters it. And within the continental U.S., the Delaware River ranks among the 1,000 rivers worldwide identified by The Ocean Cleanup as responsible for 80% of the world’s riverine pollution flow out into the ocean.

The U.S. is neither above the causes, nor immune to the effects, of global plastic pollution. We must also be part of a global plastic solution. When the Committee meets again this fall to discuss a first draft of the treaty, the United States should stand among those nations advocating for clear and universal targets for reduced plastic pollution.

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