Why we Need a ‘Paris Agreement’ for Plastics

by Christina Lund 

In 2015, world leaders met in Paris and agreed on a legally binding treaty to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees, called the Paris Agreement. I was a student of Environmental Economics at the time, learning about the importance of international treaties for global and intergenerational environmental and climate issues.  

A few years later, the “Plastic Whale” was found on the Norwegian West Coast, with over 30 plastic bags in its stomach, and the world opened its eyes to the global plastic crisis. Since then, people have been questioning why we don’t have a similar treaty on plastic pollution, as the Paris Agreement on climate change, or the Montreal Protocol that protects our ozone layer.  

This week, plastics are in the spotlight as UN members gather at the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA) in Nairobi to discuss an international treaty to limit the use of plastic and address the disposal of plastic. 

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This could be the most important environmental treaty since the Paris Agreement.

The Plastics Crisis is Growing  

Since the 1950s, the rate of plastic production has grown faster than any other material, and plastic pollution is rapidly outpacing current efforts to stop it.

Currently, only 9% of plastic waste is recycled on a global level. It is estimated that 11 million tons ends up in the ocean each year, a figure that’s expected to triple by 2040.

Plastic is not only an environmental problem, but fast-growing production also poses a major climate threat, since plastics are mainly produced from fossil fuels.

Plastic pollution also has unintended social impacts, like its effect on public health. It’s undeniable: fighting plastic pollution is the key to achieving many of the UN Sustainable Development Goals!


Plastic Pollution Doesn’t Stop at Borders 

The world has woken up to the detrimental effect that plastic pollution has on the environment, climate change, and human health, and we are seeing increased action from governments, businesses, and civil society. National and regional governments are implementing regulations, and bans on single-use and hard-to-recycle plastics. But regulations are not coordinated across nations, they lack a focus on the full life cycle of plastics, and many large polluters still do not have regulations at all. 

At the same time, businesses are also addressing the crisis by setting targets to reduce, reuse, and recycle. However, companies are struggling with the fragmented and unpredictable policy landscape that makes it hard to effectively plan and act.  

As the world’s oceans and rivers move plastics around, and don’t stop at borders, we need an ambitious global coordinated plan of action to address plastic pollution. This plan will require global collaboration and common standards.


A Treaty could Forge a Path towards a Circular Economy for Plastics 

A UN treaty on plastic pollution, where governments commit to a coordinated set of actions and policies, could catalyze action and address the problem at scale.  

The Ellen MacArthur and WWF campaign urges UN member states to develop an internationally legally binding instrument that: 

– Includes both upstream and downstream policies 
– Sets a clear direction to align governments, businesses, and civil society behind a common understanding of the causes of plastic pollution and a shared approach to address them 
– Provides a robust governance structure to ensure countries’ participation and compliance.

Image source: Ellen Macarthur Foundation Report: The business case for a UN treaty on Plastics


TOMRA is an Industry Supporter of a Treaty on Plastics 

Scientists, national governments, businesses, and NGOs have launched their support for a UN Treaty on plastic pollution leading up to the important UNEA meeting this week. I am happy that TOMRA has been an early supporter of the treaty. Now, over 100 large businesses across the plastics value chain are supporting the campaign.  

Despite these difficult times for international collaboration and diplomacy, I really hope that the ongoing UNEA meeting will be a hallmark event in the global fight for plastics. If you want to read more, please check out the following papers and links! 


WWF and Ellen MacArthur Foundations Campaign. Please sign the petition and follow for updates during the event. 

Report: From Pollution to Solution 

Ellen MacArthur Foundation – The Business case for a UN treaty on Plastics