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Key considerations identified for the development of an effective global plastics treaty

22 February 2024

A new study, published in Nature Scientific Reports, reveals that the availability of viable pollutant substitutes and environmental risk rather than human health risk have been the driving force behind strict regulation of pollutants. This knowledge may help in the development and implementation of effective strategies aimed at reducing plastic usage and corresponding pollution.
Naja Bertolt Jensen | Unsplash
Naja Bertolt Jensen | Unsplash

Plastic pollution has emerged as a global challenge necessitating collective efforts to lessen its adverse environmental consequences. As the annual UN Climate Change Conferences (COP) have demonstrated, securing international agreement on complex and cross-border environmental issues is a difficult and lengthy process.

To help facilitate negotiations for a international, legally-binding agreement aiming to dramatically reduce plastic pollution, a team of internationally-recognised scientists including PML’s Prof. Nicola Beaumont, have turned to lessons learned from successful past endeavours to manage global pollutants.

Examples of previously successful interventions include the 1987 Montreal Protocol that regulated ozone-depleting chemical substances, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), while the 2001 Stockholm Convention regulated the production and use of persistent organic pollutants (POPs). The experiences garnered from these and other international environmental agreements, as well as regional/federal environmental legislation, hold significant relevance in shaping the discourse surrounding an acceptable and effective global plastic treaty.

The study revealed that environmental rather than human health concerns have been the predominant motivating force behind previous regulations targeting pollutants, and that the decision to ban or discontinue the use of harmful pollutants is primarily affected by the availability of viable substitutes.

The team suggests that discussions relating to a global plastics treaty should not be impeded by the limited research on the impacts of plastics on human health as historically, polluting substances are more likely to be banned when they are associated with environmental harm, although research into human health impacts should still be encouraged.

The study team also recommends that leveraging the availability of substitutes can significantly contribute to the success of strategies aimed at reducing plastic pollution.

Prof. Nicola Beaumont, supervising author on the paper and PML’s Head of Science for Sea and Society, commented:

“By exploring common characteristics of regulated substances in the existing environmental legislation of major economies, we show that the burden of proof relating to environmental harm is more strongly associated with the passing of stricter regulations compared to the demonstration of harm to humans. Furthermore, regulated substances that have substitutes are more associated with being regulated strictly, (i.e. banned) compared to substances with no such alternatives. This is the case even for relatively “weak” substitutes, where the alternative substances do not entirely match the task of the regulated substance.”

“The study demonstrated that the CFC Montreal Protocol serves as a noteworthy model for transitioning away from polluting substances that resonates with the current state of the plastic pollution problem. Based on previous successful international environmental agreements, highlighting environmental harm and the need for substitutes, will lead to a more strict regulation being applied to plastics”.


Related information

Full paper: Insights from international environmental legislation and protocols for the global plastic treaty