A GLOBAL treaty intended to reduce plastic pollution is moving closer to adoption, but there are growing worries that it may fall short in its noble intentions. Of particular concern to the Philippines and neighboring countries in Southeast Asia is recent data suggesting that the global plastics treaty and other efforts to fight plastic waste may unintentionally turn the region into a dumping ground for plastic waste from other parts of the world, severely handicapping our own efforts to reduce plastic consumption and waste.
To be clear, we are fully supportive of the global plastics treaty, as is our government. Any measures that help to reduce the enormous amount of plastic that is produced and eventually finds its way into the environment as solid waste pollution should be implemented as quickly as they can be, because humanity is quite frankly producing plastic faster than it can get rid of it.
According to a report published by the OECD at the beginning of last month, if no significant actions are taken at either a global or regional level, plastic consumption will triple by 2060 — from an already astonishing 460 million metric tons annually as of 2019, to more than 1,230 million MT. More than 80 percent of that plastic ends up as waste, with all but a very small percentage of that being “mismanaged,” that is, simply discarded to pollute the land and sea.
Among the key provisions of the new global plastics treaty are a global ban on single-use plastic products; a producer-pays plan (known as extended producer responsibility, or EPR) to manage plastic waste; and a tax on new plastic production. These are all measures that have been implemented in various countries and at local government levels, but supporters of a global treaty point out that these small, uncoordinated efforts have clearly not been enough to even slow the growth of plastic consumption and waste, let alone reduce them.
However, even before the new global treaty is implemented, some of its worrisome potential flaws are being highlighted. One concern is over the definition of “single-use plastics,” and the large number of exceptions to that definition that have been necessary to gain support for the treaty from some reluctant parties.
A second uncertainty is how a tax on plastic production would be structured, as the new treaty provides very few details. Again, this was a necessary area of “flexibility” in order to secure support for the treaty, but it is seen as something that might lead to problems later on. For example, there are some proposals to treat the plastic tax much like carbon taxes, which could lead to a trade in “plastic credits.” This might not actually reduce the production of plastics, but simply shift it to different areas and producers.
The biggest problem with the new plastics treaty, according to some observers, is that it is extremely optimistic in its assumptions about a creation of a “circular economy” to deal with plastic waste, relying heavily on recycling. This, critics say, just simply doesn't add up, as only about 9 percent of plastic is recycled annually, according to the OECD data, and furthermore, the high cost and energy demand of recycling technology, at least in its current state, means that the percentage cannot be increased by a sufficient amount to make a difference. As a cheaper alternative to developing recycling schemes, large producers and consumers of plastics are increasingly opting to export waste for ersatz “recycling” — usually involving some form of incineration — in developing countries, particularly Southeast Asia. Of the $4.1 billion invested in “circularity” between 2018 and 2022, according to recent data, more than $3.5 billion of that went to Asian countries. On the one hand, the investment is welcome for the economic boost it indicates, but on the other hand, it brings with it vast amounts of plastic waste that physically needs to be dealt with.
In our view, the global plastics treaty is a good foundation for further action to fight the plastic menace, but not an end in itself. It should be regarded by our policymakers in that context as they develop laws and regulations to respond to the global agreement's emerging potential pitfalls.
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