How to solve 'absolutely dire' plastic problem: 'It's our best chance'

Warnings there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050 are hard to ignore as beaches around the world become increasingly spoiled by trash.

Much of the rubbish ruining shores across Australia's east coast washes down from city streets, but further north ocean currents are carrying bottles, food packets and fishing gear from Asia.

Hoping to arrest the impact of this global issue, the UN Environment Assembly will meet in Nairobi this month to discuss creating a plastics treaty.

Left - food for sale in plastic in a supermarket. Right - dumped plastic in a river.
United Nations talks will tackle the world's growing plastics problem. Source: Getty - File

Australia is the only country in the world to have banned the export of plastic waste, however recent polling shows its citizens want more done to tackle the issue.

Ahead of the the talks, non-profits WWF-Australia and Plastic Free Foundation conducted a survey, finding nine in 10 Australians would support a global treaty.

Environment minister outlines her hopes for plastic treaty talks

While the federal government appears to be supportive of a treaty in principle, conservationists say they are yet to take an active leadership role.

Despite approximately 50 countries signing on to support a draft resolution to formally begin the treaty process, Australia is yet to do so.

Asked about Australia's commitment to the talks, Environment Minister Sussan Ley said she would like to see more nations follow “Australia’s lead” and ban the shipping of plastics offshore.

“Australia is leading the way in ocean protection and as the Minister for the Environment, I am keen to see more initiatives from member states that remove oil-based plastics from our oceans and tackle the ghostly walls-of-death that litter Australian and international waters,” she said.

Key results of the latest plastics survey

  • 77 per cent of Aussies want single-use plastics banned quickly

  • 82 per cent want products with as little plastic as possible

  • 86 per cent think manufacturers should be responsible for plastics they produce

Hope for plastics treaty as major nations commit

Kate Noble, a plastics expert at WWF-Australia, told Yahoo News Australia she is unaware of any nations looking to block the plastics treaty.

While India and Japan have proposed alternative draft resolutions, and it’s unclear where China and Saudi Arabia sit, the United States and much of Latin America appear supportive, according to her analysis.

Close up of plastic toy vending machines in Japan.
Japan has proposed an alternative draft resolution, however there is general support for a treaty. Source: Getty - File

“In terms of this being a draft resolution to formally start work on the treaty, we think it might be the most supported by governments of any draft resolution of this kind, ever,” she said.

“There is a really strong kind of groundswell of government support from companies and support from publics around the world on this.”

What’s likely to be on the table at plastics treaty talks?

WWF-Australia warn the current projections for the global plastic waste issue are “absolutely dire” and that the talks are the “best chance” to systematically deal with the issue.

“If this treaty does the job that we hope that it will do, and if those negotiations go well, then in five years we could be looking at a very, very different scenario in terms of the projections of plastic pollution,” Ms Noble said.

Close up of dumped Coke cans, and a sign which reads Coke Costs Lives.
There are calls to make single-use plastic manufacturers pay for the problem they have contributed to. Source: Getty - File

The treaty negotiations are likely to consider recycling and limits on plastic production, the latter of which could be challenged by oil-rich nations.

Financing of plastics reduction could also be controversial, with many emerging nations already struggling to effectively deal with waste management.

Producer responsibility for the waste they manufacture is also set to generate heated discussion, however a number of major manufacturers including Coca Cola and Pepsico are supportive of a global pact.

As we saw at during last year's COP26 climate change talks, the biggest test could be finding agreement on rules and regulations around standards and definitions.

What happens after the plastics treaty talks?

The end result that WWF-Australia want to see delivered is an elimination of plastics leaking into nature.

“What we want to see coming out of this meeting is an unequivocal establishment of a negotiating committee to start this work,” Ms Noble said.

“We want their mandate to be very open so that they can look at a whole range of regulatory measures to tackle plastic pollution, rather than it being kind of a more restricted or closed mandate.

“There'll be a lot of work that's needed over the next year or two to start looking at what these options are in detail.”

The United Nations Environment Assembly will meet from February 28 to March 2 in Nairobi.

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