Negotiations on a legally-binding global plastics treaty begin at the end of November 2022.

While the treaty is expected to be fully written by the end of 2024, baseline research is still needed to ensure progress is measurable. Methods of quantifying the amount of plastics in the environment must be standardized, and the data must be accessible and transparent.

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Together, all these researchers are helping to illuminate a complex and growing plastics-pollution problem that is transforming life across the planet. Of the 9.2 billion tonnes of non-recycled plastics produced between 1950 and 2017, more than half was made in this millennium and less than one-third is still in use1 (see ‘The plastic wave’). Of the waste, nearly 80% has been buried in landfill or found its way into the environment, and a scant 8% recycled1. By 2060, plastic waste could triple from 2019 levels, and carbon emissions from the full life cycle of plastics are expected to more than double, according to a report this year2 from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris. By mid-century, nearly half of the growth in demand for oil could be driven by plastics. Around the world, people and countries are saying: enough.

In March, after nearly 30 years of researchers warning that plastics were a growing global problem, 175 nations voted in Nairobi to create a legally binding international plastics treaty. Negotiations start in earnest in Uruguay on 28 November.

United Nations secretary-general António Guterres has proclaimed it “the most important deal since the Paris Agreement”. The Nairobi resolution calls for full-life-cycle assessments, from fossil-fuel well heads — where 99% of the raw materials for plastics originate — to final disposal. The resolution also requires action plans at national, regional and international levels that work towards preventing, reducing and eliminating plastic pollution.

Yet the only way to ensure that a treaty — expected to be completed by the end of 2024 — is effective is to know where plastics come from, where they go and who’s responsible, every step of the way.

“If we don’t have a baseline,” says Kara Lavender Law, an oceanographer at the Sea Education Association (SEA) in Falmouth, Massachusetts — an organization that has been monitoring ocean plastic since 1986 — “then we’ve got no measuring stick for progress.”

Meera Subramanian, Nature, Nov 22, 2022.

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