The world is inching closer to a global agreement that would finally provide a comprehensive plan to tackle plastic pollution.
In a campaign that looks to mirror previous international agreements that successfully banned dangerous chemicals which depleted the ozone layer more than 200 countries agreed to negotiate a legally binding treaty to cover how plastic is produced to how it gets disposed.
Politicians (who are never known to exaggerate) are describing the deal as the most significant environmental deal since the 2015 Paris Accords that finally began the process of addressing greenhouse gas emissions.
“It is an insurance policy for this generation and future ones, so they may live with plastic and not be doomed by it," Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Program said in a statement.
It's a big win for environmentalists who wanted a more sweeping overhaul of regulations around plastic, while industry lobbyists wanted to limit action to just ocean plastics.
Plastics are a huge business for the petrochemical industry and a huge problem for the world. Roughly half of the plastic produced over the history of the industry has been made in the last twenty years and plastic has caused the deaths of millions of animals. It's also toxic to humans and has been linked to a number of illnesses.
About 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the world's oceans every year. And plastics can take up to 400 years to break down.
“This is a big step that will keep the pressure on big oil and big brands to reduce their plastic footprint and switch their business models to refill and reuse,” said Graham Forbes, global plastics project lead at Greenpeace USA, in a statement quoted by the BBC.
Lobbyists led by the American Chemistry Council industry group had pushed for a more limited draft that concentrated on waste and disposal, rather than production, but the broader language in the agreement means a resolution that could affect the entire industry globally.
It's here that the lessons from the ban on chemicals that were destroying the ozone layer can provide a lesson.
That agreement apparently helped the world avoid even more climate related problems, since the hole that was growing in the world's ozone layers was directly tied to emissions of chemicals known as chlorofluorocarbons.
Now that the nations have approved the scope of the agreement, the United Nations is going to form a negotiating committee to establish a treaty by the end of 2024.
Ellen MacArthur, the former long-distance sailor whose foundation campaigns for a circular economy for plastics, said the treaty would “[enable] opportunities to design out waste before it is created as part of a thriving circular economy," according to a quote from the BBC.
Companies are already mobilizing to move away from plastics production. The massive beer and beverage company AB InBev and consumer goods producer Unilever have st up an accelerator program together called 100+. And one of their recent graduates, Mi Terro is working on commercializing a new way to convert agricultural waste into a replacement for the plastics used in things like Tide pods.
In the UK, NotPla has its own spin on trying to make a replacement for plastic pouches. Several companies in the US, from Natural Fiber Welding to Algiknit are working on natural replacements for plastic fibers in clothes and fabrics, while other businesses are using captured carbon dioxide to make plastics that can be recycled, removing carbon from the atmosphere and reducing the need for fossil fuels.
FootPrint Coalition has made its own investment in the bioplastics industry. We're backing RWDC Industries, an Athens, Ga.-based company that has developed a bioplastic which the company says can be broken down into completely harmless materials in a few years, rather than hundreds of years.
The company recently raised $95 million in new financing to scale up production of its bioplastic for commercial use.
“The funding and support from global investors come at a critical juncture as the world battles the two monumental environmental challenges – climate change and marine litter – with the manufacture, consumption and disposal of consumer product packaging a key contributor to both, from the perspective of resource use, waste and carbon emissions," said company co-founder Daniel Carraway in a statement. "It will speed up the adoption of sustainable packaging and help many of the world’s largest brands meet their sustainable packaging commitments of having 100 percent of their packaging be recyclable, biodegradable or compostable by 2025.”