Today plastic has become an ubiquitous part of our everyday life, it is found in a wide range of goods from personal care, household essentials, electronics, clothes, food packaging, etc. The mass production of plastics began in the 1950s and since then the plastic industry has been growing exponentially. The major demand for plastics comes from the food packaging sector, the building and construction sector, textiles, consumer and institutional products, transportation, electronic/electrical machinery and industrial machinery in that order respectively. While there is no doubt that it has made significant contributions to the growth of the economy, this boom has also resulted in massive consequences for the environment and resultantly the economy in the form of the trail of plastic waste left behind after its use. This leads us to the all important question of whether ‘Life in plastic, is it really all that fantastic’?
Plastic became popular because it is lightweight, durable, cheap, and easy to modify. The very same reasons now result in it being extremely problematic to deal with at the end of its use. From the 1950s, when it was first used, we have generated around 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic, out of which 6.3 billion metric tonnes has become waste. The phrase ‘made to last, designed to throw’ aptly describes the nature of plastics. The option of recycling which is casually thrown around by industries as a one-stop solution to the plastic waste crisis has been a sorry figure of 9% since the time of plastic production. The result is that the majority of the plastic produced is lying as waste in landfills or in the natural environment on land and in oceans. Despite this, it is worrying to note the plastic industry’s continued growth; estimates by the Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL) project a 33-36% surge in global plastics production in the next five years.
Apart from the obvious physical manifestation of plastic waste in the form of litter, microplastics (any fragment of plastic that is less than 5 mm as per the U.S.National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) has permeated almost every kind of waterbody and even the atmosphere thereby reaching the most pristine of Earth’s habitats- Antarctica.There is even rising awareness of the implications that plastic poses for the health of mankind and nature, cases of beached whales and other marine life having died as a result of plastic consumption is on the increase. Studies show the impact of plastics on human health resulting in cancer, birth defects, skin diseases, hormone disruptions etc.
Therefore, a global treaty on plastics is the need of the hour to combat the plastic pollution problem. There are regional, national, city government level efforts to cut down on plastics through bans, penalties, fines etc. The question that arises then is why the need for a treaty at the international level?
Transboundary Issue: The plastic pollution crisis is a global governance problem as plastics like ozone-depleting substances and the greenhouse gases moves readily around the world. The country of usage is not necessarily the place where the plastic waste accumulates. This is because plastic travels through trade, rivers and oceans, wind, and even through the guts of migrating birds and mammals. Plastic pollution can end up miles away from where they were produced; the presence of microplastics in Antarctica is testimony to this.
Setting standards: The need for an international treaty on plastics is crucial as this will stop countries from implementing false solutions like recycling and waste-to-energy plants. While source segregation and recycling of non-biodegradable waste is necessary, it is only a very small part of the solution. The scale of plastic production and usage is far too big for the current recycling infrastructure to handle. The recycling figure as mentioned previously stands at 9% and this might even go down in the face of China and other South-East Asian and South Asian countries banning the import of plastic waste.
Further, recycling of some kind of plastics such as sachets and other multilayered plastic is simply not possible as the technology does not exist and it is not economically viable for the industries; it is much cheaper for them to use virgin plastic. Recycling also comes with it fair share of health problems as harmful toxins are added to plastics, therefore producers prefer to use virgin plastic, especially when it comes to food packaging.
Waste-to-energy plants is another solution preferred by industries as it enables them to continue with production unhindered. The ideology is completely opposite to that of a ‘zero-waste system’ as it requires continued production and usage of plastics to burn in the incinerator. The process of incineration also results in toxic emissions, leaving behind contaminated air, water, and soil.
Leakage: International law on plastics is crucial as sources of plastic litter are spread across the globe as discussed in the previous point on plastic being a transboundary issue. Without a coordinated international response, efforts to control the production and disposal of plastics will be undermined by countries/areas not subject to such stringent regulations.
While it is established that plastic is a matter of international concern, are existing efforts to control plastic pollution at the international level sufficient? These efforts can be classified into two categories, soft law and hard law. Soft law consists of resolutions, declarations, and initiatives which are not legally binding. Under this category, there have been efforts to curb plastic pollution through the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14; the goal talks about the need for the conservation, sustainable usage and development of the oceans, seas and marine resources. While there is no explicit mention of plastic pollution within the main goal, the key business actions required under this goal include the need for businesses to “Track the life cycle of products and materials in order to understand how they are disposed and which products could likely find their way into marine environments.”
The Leader’s Declaration from the G7 Summit in 2015 also recognises the need to prioritise action and solutions to combat marine litter. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) also passed a resolution on microplastics and marine litter in May 2016. While these are commendable steps, they at best acknowledge the problem at hand and stress the need to take action. They cannot be used to pressure countries into taking action as they are not legally binding.
Hard law on the other hand refers to legally binding commitments under contracts also referred to as conventions. The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, 1992 is designed to reduce the movement of hazardous waste between countries, especially from developed countries to developing countries. With a recent amendment to the same, exporting countries will have to receive consent from the governments of countries receiving contaminated, mixed or unrecyclable plastic waste. This was a historic step in the right direction as prior to this, the US and other countries could send lower-quality plastic waste to private entities in developing countries without getting approval from their governments.
A number of international conventions including the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, as modified by the Protocol of 1978 (MARPOL), United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) 1994, London Dumping Convention try to address the issue of marine plastic pollution. While suffering from certain inherent problems such as lack of enforceable standards and insufficient enforcement mechanisms, they cannot take the place of an independent treaty on plastics.
These conventions like the Basel Convention deal with only a part of the problem; the Basel Convention deals with the problem of export of plastic waste while the other conventions including the MARPOL, UNCLOS and the London Dumping Convention focuses on the problem of plastic from the purview of oceans solely. The priority should be to move towards a more comprehensive and holistic treaty that tackles the problem at its roots, piecemeal legislations and rules can only help partially with solving the plastic pollution crisis. A treaty that addresses the problems associated with plastic throughout its life-cycle from production, processing, manufacturing, usage, disposal and treatment is the need of the hour.