Call for G7 to forge global plastic treaty

Fatal: More than one million marine animals die each year due to plastic. © Alamy

Should there be a global plastics treaty? Major packaging producers and environmental charities are pushing for this week’s G7 summit to agree to a world treaty on plastic to tackle waste.

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands are home to 600 people and 373,000 toothbrushes.

The people are supposed to be there – they live in the remote Australian territory, far out in the Indian Ocean. The toothbrushes definitely should not be.

The islands’ white sandy beaches are littered with plastic waste. Every day, more bottles, cutlery, bags, straws and flip flops are washed onto the shore.

For scientists, the debris is more than just an eyesore. It is an ecological nightmare – a sign of an ocean that is dangerously ill.

New research suggests the plastic on the islands’ beaches is acting as an insulator, raising local maximum temperatures by nearly 2.5C and killing off vital wildlife. Soon, coastal “dead zones” could be common all across the planet.

As the world prepares to mark World Oceans Day tomorrow, activists say plastic waste is a global crisis that requires a global solution.

There is no doubt: the scale of the problem is huge. Every year, the planet produces 300 million tonnes of plastic waste. Academics predict that if trends continue, the amount ending up in our oceans could triple by 2040 to 29 million tonnes a year – equivalent to the weight of five million elephants.

This March, humans descended for the first time to the bottom of the Philippine Trench, the third-deepest ocean trench.

“There was a pair of pants, a shirt, a teddy bear, packaging and a lot of plastic bags,” said oceanographer Dr Deo Florence Onda. “Even me, I did not expect that, and I do research on plastics.”

For television presenter Chris Packham, watching the post mortem of a leatherback turtle that had confused plastic bags for jellyfish was the final straw. “It was one of the greatest tragedies I ever saw,” he said.

Now, Packham is one of a number of celebrities and organisations who have signed a letter urging world leaders to make tackling plastic waste a priority at this month’s G7 summit in Cornwall.

“The plastic crisis has no borders,” states the letter, signed by Nestle, Co-op and Aldi. “We will never overcome it without a globally consistent response.”

So far, most policies have focused on individual countries: 43 states have a ban or tax on plastic bags. But campaigners say a global treaty is possible.

The G7 was instrumental in the creation of the Paris Agreement in 2016, setting out an international response to climate change. Now, one model suggests four key pillars for a potential plastics treaty: monitoring and reporting, prevention, coordination and financial support.

And today, in 2021, the issue of plastic has taken on a new urgency – every minute, three million face masks are thrown away worldwide.

“We’ve learned of these problems now, and we’ve got potential solutions,” summarises Packham. “We just have to act. That’s what the letter is about – stop talking, start acting.”

Should there be a global plastics treaty?

Turning the tide

It is not so simple, say some. International bodies like the UN are intensely bureaucratic – it took more than a decade to make a treaty protecting humans from mercury poisoning. Nations would have to agree on whether to target plastic production or waste. And some say not every nation is equally responsible. The US and UK produce the most plastic waste per head – they should find a solution.

Of course, say others. Plastic is a truly global problem. It flows to the oceans through our rivers, washes up on our shores, migrates from country to country in the guts of animals and birds. One nation alone cannot make a difference. More than 70 governments have expressed support for a global treaty. Clearing the world of waste will benefit everyone in the end.

You Decide

  1. Should plastic be completely banned?
  2. Who should be responsible for reducing plastic waste?

Activities

  1. Keep a diary for a week, noting how much plastic you throw away every day. Then, as a class, come up with ways you could all reduce plastic waste in your lives.
  2. In pairs, write a persuasive speech calling on G7 leaders to find a solution to the plastics crisis. Then take it in turns to perform the speech to the class.

Some People Say...

“No water, no life. No blue, no green.”

Sylvia Earle (1935 – ), American marine biologist and explorer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that there are reasons to be hopeful about the future of the oceans. Last year, a group of 14 countries known as the Ocean Panel made a pledge to manage their ocean waters sustainably by 2025. In February 2020, scientists counted an “astonishing” 55 blue whales around South Georgia – once the centre of whale hunting. And last week, Coca Cola announced a collaboration with The Ocean Clean-Up project to clean 15 highly polluted rivers by the end of 2022.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds the long term effects of plastic debris in the world’s oceans. Already, scientists have found microplastics in the guts of fish meant for human consumption. Nobody knows exactly what the effect of eating contaminated food will be on the human body. Some say there is little reason to worry – microplastics do not seem to enter the muscle of fish. But others say that eventually, microplastics will break down to nanoplastics with potentially dire consequences.

Word Watch

Wildlife
More than 500,000 hermit crabs have died in the Cocos Islands alone.
World Oceans Day
This year’s theme is “The Ocean: Life & Livelihoods”. The annual event was recognised by the UN in 2008.
Chris Packham
The English wildlife expert is best known for presenting BBC series Springwatch.
Post mortem
An examination of a body to find out the cause of death. The turtle washed up on the shore of South Wales.
G7
The Group of Seven is an organisation made up of seven of the world’s most advanced economies - Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US. The group was known as the G8 until 2014, when Russia was excluded for annexing Crimea.
Paris Agreement
A legally binding international treaty on climate change adopted by nearly 200 countries. The US rejoined the agreement earlier this year.
Model
The model was made by the Environmental Investigation Agency, a non-governmental organisation campaigning against abuse of the environment.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.