Last week at an historic in Nairobi, Kenya, something rare happened. An unprecedented show of global solidarity—made all the more important in the context of Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified war against Ukraine. Representatives from 175 nations agreed at the UN Environment Assembly to begin negotiating a legally binding agreement to stem the tide of plastic waste across the planet. At a time when unity and harmony are hard to come by, businesses, governments, and civil society—north and south, small and large, developed and developing—agreed we have all had enough of plastic pollution.
Plastics are incredibly durable and strong, and they have many important uses. They make transportation lighter and more fuel efficient, medical devices and polymers that can heal and fasten anything, furniture and fabrics that are colorful and breathe, and bottles that provide clean drinking water for billions of people who would not have it otherwise. But for all the benefits they have brought society, plastics come with a dark tradeoff – incredible volumes of highly resilient waste that are battering animals, scarring land and sea and poisoning the planet.
Plastic waste is exploding everywhere around the globe. The average amount of time a person uses a plastic bottle is just 12 minutes. But it will be with us for centuries. In many parts of the world, this bottle will be thrown onto the streets, in the environment, or in open dumps, where it will wash into rivers and onto beaches, eventually passing right into the ocean. It chokes water and wildlife, and collects in oceanic “garbage patches” the size of continents—there are six of them spread across the planet. And the bottle will continue to break down into smaller and smaller bits, called microplastic, eventually making its way to every corner of our planet. These plastic trails can be found now at the bottom of the deepest part of the ocean, from the North Pole to the South Pole and everywhere in between. It’s in the food chain—in the bellies of fish and livestock and in the bloodstream of humans. It’s even in the air we breathe. We can’t escape it.
Indeed, it’s hard to find any part of the world untouched by plastic. And every year the amount of is growing and it’s forecast to continue growing for the foreseeable future. In fact, plastic growth has been exponential—in 1950, 1.8 million tons were produced globally, but by 2018, it had grown to a whopping 465 million tons, according to National Geographic. Half of all plastics EVER manufactured have been made in the last 15 years. Every country is contributing to the problem, and even in the United States we only recycle only 9 percent of the plastic waste we generate. The rest goes into landfills or gets exported to other countries, where, depending on the destination, its fate can be uncertain.
But last week, we began to turn the tide. Representatives from countries across the planet said enough is enough, agreeing to a UN decision hailed as the most important environmental pact since the Paris Agreement. Together, we agreed that the only way to fix our plastic addiction is to beat it together. We agreed that there are no one size fits all solutions—but that instead we will work country by country to eliminate everything we can, and reuse and recycle what we can. We agreed to aim high and create a race to innovate and find new and better alternatives for plastics.
In Swahili, there is a well-love phrase, “Tuko Pamoja,” which roughly translates as “We are Together.” And though there are many issues that divide our world, on this one, we have all come together. There are months of work ahead to achieve the ambitious plastic waste elimination goal set out in Nairobi last week. But we are determined to make this the beginning of the end of the scourge of plastic pollution on the planet. Tuko Pamoja!
About the Author: Monica Medina serves as Assistant Secretary for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.