Negotiators from around the world will start work this month on a treaty to reduce plastic pollution, in what diplomats say is the most ambitious round of climate diplomacy since the 2015 Paris agreement that focuses on global warming.
The discussions, which have the backing of the Biden administration, could reshape a world increasingly awash in plastics that take centuries to break down and millennia to decompose. Diplomats could agree to caps on plastic production that would forestall the exponential increases that are expected in the coming decades. They could also impose rules to make plastic easier and less toxic to repurpose, amid growing concern that only 10 percent of the material ever made has been recycled.
Talks are so preliminary that diplomats are still haggling over the issues they will and won’t negotiate. And few expect immediate breakthroughs. But officials say there is a window during President Biden’s current term in office to make a deal that would shake up the realm of plastics with the cooperation of the United States, the world’s biggest producer of plastic waste per person.
As with the Paris agreement, one of the first issues a plastics treaty would address is the basic issue of counting: How much plastic is being manufactured? How much gets recycled? What kinds of chemicals are going into the plastic, and how are they being handled when the plastic is discarded? In much of the world, there aren’t reliable numbers.
[Michael Birnbaum and Min Joo Kim]