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The long road to less plastic waste

Melanie Bergmann is a marine biologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI), the Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research. She accompanied the negotiations for a UN plastics agreement, which took place in Nairobi in November 2023. Photo: AWI

 Every year more than 460 million tons of plastic are produced worldwide. Between 19 and 23 million tons of which ends up as waste in waterways every year – that’s almost two truckloads per minute. An international agreement to curb plastic waste is urgently needed, says marine biologist Melanie Bergmann from the Alfred Wegener Institute.

Plastic in the environment is a health burden for many organisms in the oceans and on land, as well as for us humans. We now assume that well over 13,000 different chemicals are associated with plastic. Around a quarter of these are proven to be harmful. Of the remaining three quarters, we do not yet know whether they are harmless or not. A recent study estimates that plastic costs at least 250 billion dollars a year in public health costs for humans alone. And the damage to ecosystems – caused by plastic waste in the oceans, for example, is so great that we can hardly put a figure on it.

We must therefore take urgent action and reach an international agreement to curb plastic waste. Scientific calculations have shown that the most effective and cost-effective lever is a reduction in plastic production. More effective recycling can at best be a building block. Collecting waste in the sea with hundreds of ships and nets – think of the well-known project “The Ocean Cleanup” – would be technically almost impossible to implement, would emit a lot of CO2 and would put additional pressure on ecosystems due to the bycatch of marine organisms. It is therefore much better if the plastic doesn’t end up there in the first place.

In November, representatives from around 170 UN states met in the Kenyan capital Nairobi to negotiate precisely this issue. Unfortunately, the result is very sobering. Two blocs have emerged that have very different ideas about such an agreement. Countries with a strong fossil fuel or petrochemical industry, such as Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran, are putting the brakes on the process and are only in favor of voluntary national measures. In contrast, the more than 60 states of the so-called “High Ambition Coalition” are striving for much more far-reaching changes. These include production reductions and a simplified chemical composition in order to enable a cycle for indispensable plastic products in the first place. This is because the aforementioned cocktail of 13,000 chemicals, which are often incompatible with each other and are not even declared, stands in the way of more effective recycling. Furthermore, there are still unknown chemicals that arise during the production process.

In addition, lobbying pressure has become even stronger: The number of industry representatives from the fossil and petrochemical sectors alone has increased by 36 percent compared to the previous round and now exceeds the combined number of negotiators from the G7 countries.

The hardened fronts have also meant that no mandate for “intersessional work”, i.e., further work between the negotiation rounds, could be agreed. This massively jeopardizes the goal of concluding the negotiations with an agreement by 2024. Nevertheless, it is perhaps better to have an additional round of negotiations with a good result than a quick but less far-reaching compromise that can hardly be corrected later.

It is to be hoped that the states will continue to work informally without a mandate for intersessional work and thus pave the way for further negotiations next year in Ottawa.

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