The UN’s plastic problem

Last year, the UN agreed on an ambitious goal to devise a treaty by 2024 aimed at ending plastic pollution. But like any group project, there are some major differences of opinion.

Driving the news: A week of talks between UN countries on ending plastic pollution ended with two sides split on how to handle the issue of continued plastic production.

  • One side, comprised of most member nations including Canada and most of Europe, wants legally binding rules to limit how much plastic petrochemical companies can produce.
  • The other side, featuring superpowers China and the US, wants a less strict, voluntary system, as they see plastic production as a necessary way for fossil fuel companies to recoup losses stemming from the coming green energy transition. 

Oil is a main component in plastic production and the International Energy Agency predicts that petrochemicals will eventually outpace transport as the leader in global oil demand.

Why it matters: Per the UN, humanity produces over 430 million tonnes of plastic every year, two-thirds of which almost immediately becomes waste, making its way into soil and water across the globe. A simple way to cut down on pollution is to cut down on production. 

Yes, but: It’s one thing to replace candy bar wrappers, but plastic is used in pretty much everything and demand for it is surging in many developing economies.

In Canada: The first stage of the single-use plastics ban came into effect late last year, banning the manufacturing and import of plastic products like straws and bags. The UN’s plastic treaty could affect other plastic items like food packaging. It could also take a bite out of Canada’s plastics industry, which generates some $35 billion a year.—QH