Plastic pollution is a crisis that will only get worse if less unaddressed. The missing element in solving the problem, political will, materialised in February 2022 with a United Nations resolution that initiated a process to develop a binding treaty to tackle plastic pollution at all stages of the plastics lifecycle. The development of a strong treaty faces resistance from petrochemical and plastics corporations, which absurdly are allowed to take part in the negotiations. Civil society is pushing for access and keeping up the pressure for both ambition and speed to make the 2024 deadline, in the knowledge that only global action will help address a worldwide problem.

The world is drowning in plastic. Because of the ways they’re designed, produced, consumed and disposed of, plastics are creating a major and growing crisis, impacting severely on ecosystems, biodiversity, climate and human health.

An estimated seven billion of the 9.2 billion tonnes of plastics produced since the 1950s are now waste. Much of that ends up in the soil and oceans, in our food and even in our bloodstream, in the form of microplastics that are now basically everywhere. According to a study by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), plastics are the ‘largest, most harmful and most persistent fraction of marine litter, accounting for at least 85 per cent of total marine waste’.

The world’s addiction to plastics remains on the rise. Virgin plastic production rose from two million tonnes a year in 1950 to 367 million tonnes in 2020, and is projected to exceed one billion tonnes a year by 2050.

A global, legally binding approach to this worldwide problem is badly needed because nothing else has worked. Plastics remain largely unregulated under international law, with a handful of conventions each addressing limited aspects of the plastics lifecycle and impacts. Now there are hopes of changing that: in March 2022, a ground-breaking UN resolution kicked off a process to negotiate an international treaty to respond to plastic pollution.

Civil society, a major force behind the process leading to negotiations, is working to ensure the resulting treaty isn’t yet another patch that fails to tackle the root causes of the problem. Instead, civil society is seeking a treaty that imposes binding obligations and addresses all impacts of plastics throughout their lifecycle, from design and production to consumption and waste management.

The kick-off resolution

The historic resolution came in the 2022 meeting of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA). Although it receives little public attention compared to environmental summits such as the conferences of parties (COPs) on climate change, the UNEA is the world’s highest-level environmental decision-making body. All 193 UN states are members and it meets every two years in Nairobi, Kenya to set priorities for global environmental policy and develop international environmental law.

The UNEA’s fifth session was split into an online session in February 2021 and an in-person discussion in February 2022, when the landmark resolution was passed. In the run-up to the meeting, over 700 civil society groups from 113 countries pressured UN member states to agree to develop a legally binding treaty.

The resolution was years in the making: it first came up at the 2016 UNEA meeting in reference to marine plastic. When it finally materialised, its scope had broadened considerably, and although the language of the resolution was the result of negotiations, efforts to severely weaken it or reduce its scope were defeated.

The resolution mandated the establishment of an intergovernmental negotiating committee (INC) to produce a binding treaty covering all phases of the plastic lifecycle by the end of 2024. This is an ambitious deadline considering the many details the INC will have to sort out, from reporting standards to financing mechanisms, which will make a world of difference to the treaty’s effectiveness.

Voices from the frontline

Vito Buonsante is an environmental health lawyer and technical and policy advisor at the International Pollutants Elimination Network.


The most important measure an effective treaty should include is the reduction of the total production of plastics. If production doesn’t slow down, over the next 20 years the amount of plastic will double and it will become truly impossible to control.

A second key measure concerns the design of plastics. Here there is a need to remove all toxic chemical additives, such as bisphenols, PFAS and flame retardants, and all toxic polymers such as PVC and polystyrene. These chemicals are known to cause adverse health impacts, disrupting hormonal functions, fertility and children’s brain functions, among others. Removing them from plastics will create safer material cycles. It is also very important to improve transparency about both plastics ingredients and the quantities and types of plastics produced. Without a clear picture of what is produced and where, it will be difficult to beat plastic pollution.

Ambition should also extend to implementation. There must be a commitment from developed countries to create a fund to implement the treaty. No matter how stringent the provisions of the treaty are, without considerable investment in implementation, impact will be limited. Commitments have recently been adopted for funds for climate and biodiversity, but there is not yet a fund established to tackle plastic pollution and other chemicals and waste-related actions.

We are optimistic that the need to solve this planetary crisis will prevail. The international community has been failing on climate change and cannot fail on plastics as well. The Plastics Treaty could be a way to show that international cooperation is the best way to solve global problems and that human health and the environment can and must be put ahead of national interests and business interests.


This is an edited extract of our conversation with Vito. Read the full interview here.

Civil society campaigning

In 2016, a global movement, #BreakFreeFromPlastic (BFFP), formed to demand the reduction of single-use plastics and advocate for lasting solutions to the plastic crisis. The campaign has been joined by more than 2,800 organisations and 13,000 people around the world. It shares scientific findings and does its own research, on the basis of which it advocates globally for change, including for the Plastics Treaty. Its member organisations help speak up for the most disadvantaged, including waste sector workers, and urge new laws and policies to tackle the problem, including at the national and regional levels.

One of their campaigns is #StopShippingPlasticWaste, focusing on the waste trade: the mass export of plastic waste by wealthy nations to global south countries, where it’s supposedly recycled, but is often dumped in landfills or burned in illegal plants, causing contamination and fuelling health problems. This is clearly no solution to the plastics crisis.

The BFFP campaign uses science against the self-serving arguments of plastics producers. It presented a Scientists’ Declaration that strongly questioned approaches focused primarily on waste management, patchwork legislation and voluntary commitments.

The declaration makes clear that plastic pollution is ‘transboundary and transgenerational’. Like climate change, its impacts vastly exceed the capacity of any state to address, which is why a multilateral approach is needed.

In the declaration, scientists assess that current national-level regulations and voluntary initiatives would only mean a seven per cent reduction in plastic waste. They point to the broad lack of regulation of the plastics industry and the inadequacy of recycling as a sole solution, since much of what is produced isn’t recyclable and recycling still has environmental impacts.

The need above all is to focus on restricting plastic production, but there’s powerful lobbying against this from fossil fuel companies, chemical corporations and plastics manufacturers. Alongside this, there’s a need to cut out toxic additives, fillers and polymers that make most plastic unrecyclable. And there’s a need for improved waste management to ensure that whatever plastic reaches the end of its lifecycle can be safely disposed of. A vital part of this would be to shift the financial costs of plastic waste management to plastic manufacturers rather than the public.

The fox in the henhouse

The first INC session took place from 28 November to 2 December 2022 in Uruguay, with more than 1,400 in-person and virtual delegates from 147 countries. It was preceded by a Multi-Stakeholder Forum, described as an attempt to find common ground between various interests, from environmental justice groups and public health professionals to representatives of the petrochemical industry.

Environmental activists highlighted the absurdity of giving a seat at the table to the companies driving the plastic pollution crisis, which can only make a strong agreement much harder. They pointed to the example of negotiations to develop the 2003 Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which didn’t include the tobacco industry.

Organisations of wastepickers in countries from Chile to India emphasised the need for equitable and substantial, non-tokenistic civil society participation to develop the treaty, and for the voices of those on the frontlines of dealing with plastic waste to be heard as the only way to identify genuine solutions.

In resisting the often-disguised influence of fossil fuel lobbyists in the negotiations, civil society has a powerful ally in the High Ambition Coalition to end plastic pollution. Co-chaired by Norway and Rwanda, this broad coalition of states is pushing for an ambitious and comprehensive treaty that addresses the entire lifecycle of plastics, with the aim of ending plastic pollution by 2040. In line with civil society’s proposals, the coalition has three global strategic goals: limiting plastic consumption and production to sustainable levels, enabling a circular economy for plastics that protects the environment and human health, and achieving environmentally sound management and recycling of plastic waste.

The Plastics Treaty could be a way to show that international cooperation is the best way to solve global problems and that human health and the environment can and must be put ahead of national interests and business interests.


However, there are some powerful states that aren’t onside: Japan, Saudi Arabia and the USA are among those pushing for a far less ambitious treaty with voluntary rather than binding commitments and focusing only on waste management rather than the whole lifecycle of plastics.

These are the faultlines as a second INC session approaches in France from 29 May to 2 June. The challenge is to get an agreement that is both ambitious and concluded by the 2024 deadline. The danger to avoid is of something that pays lip service to the problem, such as talking up the potential of recycling, without getting to grips with the fundamental issue of plastic production.

Civil society will try to keep up the pressure for both speed and ambition, in the knowledge that with each passing day the problem that must be solved will only keep getting bigger.


  • States should work to limit undue plastic industry influences in the treaty development process.
  • States should engage with civil society campaigners and take on board their proposals for a strong treaty.
  • A wide range of civil society, particularly from the global south, should take part in the treaty process.

Cover photo by Tony Karumba/AFP via Getty Images