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There are rays of hope in Bangkok

It's not been widely covered, but the world is making progress in significantly reducing plastic production. This was on display at the Economist Impact's Global Plastics Summit in Bangkok this month and will continue in Nairobi next month.

The Global Plastic Treaty is important because almost nothing harms as many things as plastic. Every year, 300 million tonnes are produced — emitting toxic chemicals that harm human health and biodiversity. Within about 25 years, almost a third of the world’s carbon budget will be consumed by plastic production. There is simply no way we can limit global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius unless we significantly reduce — by about 75% — plastic production by 2040.

Then, of course, there’s plastic disposal. Each of us has microplastics inside us now. By one estimate, humans eat the equivalent of a credit card in plastic every week. Vast numbers of sea mammals and fish aren’t immune, either. In Asia and much of the world, plastic waste is incinerated, again releasing toxic chemicals and more carbon emissions. And so much still finds its way into our oceans. Every year, we send at least 14 million tonnes into the sea — that’s a rubbish truck every single minute — and plastic now comprises 80% of all marine debris.

Finally, the world is acting. Spurred on by the global grassroots movement Break Free From Plastic, we have deep momentum for a treaty that no one dreamed was possible just two years ago. And countries as diverse as India, Rwanda, France and Canada are banning single-use plastics. But just as only global action, through a 1987 treaty, could save the ozone layer, only a coordinated world response through another treaty can combat the plastic crisis.

As we’ve seen on climate change, however, a treaty that doesn’t achieve its objectives won’t solve the problem. Which is why the Global Plastics Summit in Bangkok, bringing together scientists, policymakers, civil society and industry, was such an important milestone in the fight against plastic.

We saw encouraging signs in the discussions throughout the week. First, the overall narrative was that we cannot continue business as usual. Tinkering around the edges of this problem will be a waste of time, and what is needed is systems change. This includes a cap on the production of plastic, not just looking downstream at the pollution washing up on our shores. And a strong focus on making sure we have a just transition as we transform systems. The discussions also focused on the toxicity of plastic to human health and the environment.

One of the major framing developments was that the conference emphasised the waste hierarchy approach, putting the most impactful initiatives first: elimination, reduction, reuse, repair — then recycling as a last resort.

This is fundamentally different from the way governments and industry have looked at this problem in the past and is a testament to the work of dozens of Break Free From Plastic grassroots advocates from across the globe who were included in the discussions.

On the finance side, there were robust discussions about how to develop equitable financial mechanisms to truly change the plastics supply chain. This includes financially disincentivising production, as well as the creation of a global, multilateral fund to level the playing field, particularly for least-developed countries and small-island developing states, which have limited capacity to deal with the single-use plastic forced on them by global corporations.

As well as government contributions, such a fund should leverage investment from plastics companies themselves, incentivising plastic reduction and increasing the pool of money available for solutions. In the past, many countries used settlements reached with tobacco companies to fund anti-smoking campaigns. Why shouldn’t plastic manufacturers be treated in the same way? The United Nations estimates plastic pollution costs coastal communities dependent on fishing, aquaculture, and tourism at least US$6 billion (216 billion baht) and possibly as much as $19 billion.

The revenue generated could be used in a myriad of ways. Countries need to build the infrastructure required to scale up reuse. The smaller island states and least-developed countries, which find themselves on the front lines of the plastic crisis, will need support to implement and monitor the new regime. And workers will need to be supported as part of a just transition.

But wherever we live, we’re all experiencing a crisis in plastic pollution. One that an emerging global treaty will hopefully address, using the solutions from the Economist Impact’s Global Plastics Summit in Bangkok.

Nicky Davies is the executive director of the Plastic Solutions Fund.

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