End Plastics

Oil-Rich Countries Hinder The Global Plastics Treaty

The Plastic Problem 

400 million tons of plastic are produced worldwide every year, with about 35.7 million tons of it coming from the US. More than 14 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans every year, causing devastating harm to our planet’s health. Researchers expect plastic production to triple by 2060, and if we don’t act now we will soon realize plastics are a grave threat to life on Earth. 

Plastic is as equally a human problem as it is an environmental one. Researchers have found plastic particles in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the blood flowing through our veins. A study in the Journal of Hazardous Materials found that microplastics — at the levels ingested by people via their food — irreversibly damage human cells. The UN is trying to address the threat of plastic to our environment and human health, but oil-rich countries continue to curtail meaningful progress.

The State of Plastics Treaty Negotiations

In March 2022, the UN Environment Programme created an International Negotiating Committee (INC) tasked with creating a set of rules to tackle plastic pollution. During the first round of negotiations, 51 countries banded together to form the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution. They advocated for the Plastics Treaty to be legally binding for all countries, calling for stricter measures to end plastic pollution. Countries that produce and profit the most from plastic, such as the United States and Saudi Arabia, did not join the coalition and opposed efforts to curb plastic production. 

On May 29, 2023, the INC began a second round of negotiations in Paris. The talks ended with an agreement to produce a first draft of the treaty by November, aligning with the scheduled INC-3 conference in Kenya.

During the negotiations, procedural disagreements consumed two days, as oil-producing countries vigorously tried to derail progress. Delegates eventually agreed to produce a legally binding “zero draft” document. This means countries will be obligated to reach the goals specified in the treaty rather than voluntarily attempting to uphold it. 

Oil-Rich Countries Impede Ambitious Plastic Reductions

Although there was progress, disagreements by delegates on critical aspects means there’s still a long way to go before negotiators reach a final treaty. Countries like the United States and Saudi Arabia want the treaty to focus on improving plastic recycling and waste management instead of decreasing production. The United States and Saudi Arabia oppose reducing production because they profit greatly from large petrochemical companies located in their countries. However, nations in the High Ambition Coalition — which includes EU members and Japan — want the treaty to include plastic production reduction targets and improved waste management strategies. 

The United States also aligned itself with Saudi Arabia on the issue of how the UN should enforce the treaty. Both countries support national action plans where every country has different compliance requirements. However, the Paris Agreement proved this approach was flawed. The individual requirements allowed countries, like the United States, to set their own reduction targets and avoid consequences when they failed to reach them. A global, legally binding treaty ensures the UN can hold countries accountable to reach the targets. 

Focusing on waste management and recycling is not enough to solve the plastic problem. Only 9% of plastic ever created has been recycled. If the United States and other oil-rich countries continue to produce plastic, it will continue to end up on our sidewalks, oceans, and forests. It is impossible to recycle our way out of the plastic pollution problem. Limiting, and eventually ending, plastic production is the only way toward a future free from the chokehold of plastic pollution. 

What You Can Do To Help 

EARTHDAY.ORG supports the United States joining the Plastics Treaty to pursue ambitious goals to terminate virgin plastic production rather than continue to support petrochemical companies. Sign the Global Plastics Treaty petition to urge the United States’ to prioritize the environment and the well-being of its citizens.