UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution by Silvia Milanova, April 21 2021, 131 Comments

Plastic pollution is damaging to the environment, especially the world’s oceans. It seems that everyone is aware of the growing problem. Public awareness of plastic pollution has continued to grow, according to Google trend news searches since 2016. This trend has pushed consumers to demand stronger leadership on plastic pollution, changed shopping habits and encouraged employees to seek jobs at more responsible and sustainable firms. And still, it’s not enough. Despite national regulations and private voluntary initiatives, more than 11 million tons of plastic waste still flows into our oceans each year.

This alarming rate of pollution has urged 30 major businesses (as of October 2020) to sign a declaration that calls for a global treaty on plastic pollution. The overall goal is to significantly accelerate progress towards a circular economy for plastics with a more coordinated approach. As the first collective corporate action of its kind, the overall motto of the resolution is, “There is no time to waste.WWF, Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Boston Consulting Group (BCG) are urging more companies to join and the manifesto is open to new signatories.


A joint report by WWF, Ellen MacArthur Foundation and BCG called, The Business Case for a UN Treaty on Plastic Pollutionoutlines the urgency of the current status of plastic pollution. Regardless of a doubling of voluntary initiatives and national regulations over the last five years, plastics still make their way into our oceans and there is no sign that leakage rates are slowing. Although plastics bring a benefit to society, when they are not properly handled and leave the value chain, they can harm both nature and people. Today, one-third of plastic waste is mishandled; after which it pollutes the environment, floats around the globe with ocean currents and has even reached the shores of each Pole. Plastic waste is especially harmful to marine ecosystems and marine mammals.

The report calls for a global agreement among major businesses and NGOs, with global goals, clear direction and consistent measurement on how to progress more decisively and tackle this dire international issue. According to the report, the objective of the treaty should be to eliminate plastic leakage into our oceans by a specific date. Key points should include:

  1. Harmonized regulatory standards and common definitions across markets
  2. Clear national targets and action plans that aggregate to deliver on the treaty’s overarching objective
  3. Common reporting metrics and methodologies across the plastic value chain
  4. Coordinated investment approaches to support infrastructure development in key markets and innovation

Although voluntary actions can change the local markets, a larger global approach is necessary to bring industry-scale change. “A UN Treaty will help connect bottom-up activities to top-down expectations, setting our global community on path toward solving the plastic waste crisis," said Erin Simon, Head of Plastic Waste & Business at World Wildlife Fund (US).


Currently, the existing international regulations governing plastic pollution are weak, disjointed and ineffective, and plastic pollution lacks a concrete legal framework. In the report, the authors highlight Jambeck et al. (2015), which found that only 20 countries were responsible for 83% of total mismanaged plastic waste. From those 20, only one, Sri Lanka, has regulations that cover more than 50% of marine plastic waste items. Seven of those countries do NOT even have an official national plastic policy document.

Most other global environmental crises are governed through treaties such as this. If nothing is done to slow the rate of plastic leakage, the “global volume of plastic entering the ocean is forecast to triple over the next 20 years,” according to the report. In order to see radical improvements, governments, businesses and consumers should work together to:

  • eliminate unnecessary and problematic plastic
  • shift to reuse models
  • exponentially increase recycling levels
  • stop the leakage in the current system

“For businesses, a global agreement could alleviate operational complexity, simplify reporting, and critically unlock investment across the plastic value chain” said Jesper Nielsen, Leader of Social Impact & Sustainability Practice in Western Europe, Africa & South America, Boston Consulting Group.


In December 2020, joining companies such as P&G, Danone, Nestle, Starbucks and Tesco, EcoPlum signed the call to encourage the member states of the UN to immediately gather and negotiate a treaty on plastic pollution that will harmonize standards and action plans and drive the speedy transition to a circular economy for plastics. As of March 2021, Russia, Kenya, Ecuador and Australia joined the list and there are now 69 countries, over 2 million people and many of the world’s leading companies calling for a global agreement on plastic pollution.

Also, in March 2021, government leaders, businesses, civil society and environmental activists met virtually at the Fifth Session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) under the theme “Strengthening Actions for Nature to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals”.

At the UNEA 5.1 event, the leaders of Germany, Ecuador and Ghana pledged to hold a global ministerial conference on plastic pollution later in 2021, according to WWF. This conference will provide an important opportunity to solidify the creation of the new treaty.

With the current global pandemic (COVID-19), uncertainties in agendas regarding plastic pollution are higher than ever. Single-use plastic products are on the rise and some national plastic pollution initiatives have stopped altogether. That’s why, now, more than ever, it’s crucial to implement international policies that can properly guide governments and business on a clear approach to addressing the plastic pollution crisis.