At the end of last week, 187 countries from Norway to Nicaragua signed an agreement designed to limit the world's volume of plastic waste. One country was notably (but, perhaps, unsurprisingly) absent – the US.
Plastic detritus (and microplastic, its sneakier cousin) can be found worldwide, from the top of remote mountains to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Scientists have seen it in the Arctic, inside dead whales, and even in us.
And so, to tackle a problem that could see plastic outweigh fish by 2050, the United Nations (UN) has led an initiative that aims to curb the amount of hard-to-recycle plastic waste being shipped to poorer nations. This new rule won't come into action for another year but it means that starting from 2020, countries who export plastic will need the consent of importing countries when it comes to contaminated, mixed, or unrecyclable plastic waste.
According to a statement issued by the UN, the move should make the global trade in plastic waste "more transparent and better regulated" and, at the same time, ensure the process is "safer for human health and the environment".
"I’m proud that this week in Geneva, Parties to the Basel Convention have reached agreement on a legally-binding, globally-reaching mechanism for managing plastic waste," said Rolph Payet, an Executive Secretary at UN Environment.
"Plastic waste is acknowledged as one of the world’s most pressing environmental issues, and the fact that this week close to 1 million people around the world signed a petition urging Basel Convention Parties to take action here in Geneva at the COPs is a sign that public awareness and desire for action is high," he added, referring to an online campaign called "Stop dumping plastic in paradise!".
As one of just a handful of countries that are yet to ratify the Basel Convention, the US was not involved in talks and has not signed up to the agreement. However, because it is a global initiative, the US will still be affected by the ruling when dealing with countries that are part of the convention – including China, who up until last year was the world's biggest importer of plastic scrap.
In 2018, the country decided it would no longer buy non-industrial plastic scrap, leaving 101 million tonnes (111 tons) of recycled waste in limbo. The move led to a raft of similar legislation restricting plastic imports to various Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam and Malaysia, who had been overwhelmed with waste in the wake of China's ban.
It is hoped that the UN rule will help eliminate some of the plastic waste being generated – as of right now, there is an estimated 100 million tonnes (110 tons) of plastic floating in the world's oceans. Eighty to 90 percent of that comes from land-based sources.
Director general of WWF International, Marco Lambertini, says this motion is a good start to redressing the problem of unequal balance between the world's wealthiest and poorest countries when it comes to tackling plastic waste and introducing some accountability, but there is further to go.
"[I]t only goes part of the way. What we – and the planet – need is a comprehensive treaty to tackle the global plastic crisis," said Lambertini, Reuters reports.