We've updated our Privacy Policy to make it clearer how we use your personal data. We use cookies to provide you with a better experience. You can read our Cookie Policy here.


Takeaways From a Global Plastics Treaty

Plastic bottle on a beach.
Credit: Ishan@seefromthesky/Unsplash
Listen with
Register for free to listen to this article
Thank you. Listen to this article using the player above.

Want to listen to this article for FREE?

Complete the form below to unlock access to ALL audio articles.

Read time: 4 minutes

Plastic pollution is a growing concern around the world, but the health risks of this pollution are still being underestimated, according to Aidan Charron.

Charron is the director of the End Plastic Initiatives at Earth Day, the non-profit that calls for environmental awareness and sustainable change on April 22 (and every other day of the year). The charity’s latest campaign is to reduce global plastic production by 60% by 2040.

It sounds like a gargantuan goal, but there are tentative treaties being drafted that could demand just that from their signatories. One such pact is currently being handled by a United Nations’ intergovernmental negotiating committee (INC) that just met in Nairobi, Kenya.

Technology Networks caught up with Charron not long after he arrived back from Nairobi to hear how negotiations went and what outcomes are vital from these treaties.


Leo Bear-McGuinness (LBM): You just got back from the INC on microplastics. How did it go?

Aidan Charron (AC): Yeah, global plastics treaty number three. Basically, you sit in one of 3 rooms for about 18 hours a day, while country delegates talk about the finer points of things, and the lawyers get really excited about them. Some arguments can ensue, but most of it is pretty civil – a little bit more yelling back and forth –  but everybody seemed to calm down for this one. It was really interesting. My background isn’t in policy work; I was originally in wetland reclamation and then teaching. So, this is really a new wheelhouse for me to be attending these events.

LBM: Was it a bit of a dry process?

AC: For most people, it can be a pretty dry process. It’s a lot a lot of listening, and a lot of furious notetaking.  I like to consider that part of my job is to make these negotiations more palatable to the common person, so they’re not just ignoring it, because it does affect all of us so deeply.

We hear about COP 28, but that’s a more  traditional conference with more showy events going on. When you have these treaty negotiations where you get into the nitty gritty, people can ignore it. So, Earth Day’s role right now is to be more engaged, and actually reach out to the delegates and push for a stronger treaty.

LBM: What should people know about these treaties?

AC: We need to have a top-down approach. We need to cut production. That needs to be our main goal with this treaty.

We just need a heavier focus on health. It  was brought up in the treaty, but during these negotiations, we’re seeing a lot of countries steer the conversation away from it, saying it is being addressed by other treaties. So, I think our main thing is to make sure health is brought up and to make sure that plastic production is cut down significantly. We’re calling for 60% reduction by 2040, and others are calling for a little bit higher; we’re more than happy to go higher. We just thought 60% reduction by 2040 was a kicking-off point and one that was more palatable for countries such as the United States (US) that are so reliant on the petrochemical industries.

LBM: What are the health concerns when it comes to plastics?

AC: Well, there’s a lot, especially with the chemicals that go into plastic production. PFAS [per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances] and phthalates are the main ingredients in a lot of plastics that allows them to be flexible; it’s what makes plastic, plastic. We’re seeing a connection between 20% higher rates of childhood cancer when children are exposed to these plastics, as well as increases in different neurological disorders, such as ADHD and ADD.

We just came out with a report that’s about 60 pages on all the health implications, specifically as it relates to children. It’s just staggering what these chemicals are doing to our bodies. Nothing good is coming out of plastic.

LBM: Are the countries present at these treaties concerned about these issues?

AC: There’s a group of countries that are willing to cut production. But then we have the normal players that do not want to cut production. Those are petrochemical states such as the US who just feel that, since we’re moving towards more renewables when it comes to cars and vehicles and transportation, plastic is going to be the saving grace for the fossil fuel industry.

They think that we have so much tied up in that industry that we’re willing to stall these negotiations, ‘we’ll allow lobbyists into these negotiations and just prevent any cuts in production.’ While other countries are more willing, such as members of the European Union, which has been really strong on looking at different health implications of plastic. They understand that it’s a health issue, it’s a human issue and it’s an environmental issue, and they’re not as tied up in the fossil fuel industry.

Latin American countries are also really strong on the treaty, as well as the group of African nations, which is really great to see. Rwanda and Kenya have some of the strongest anti-plastic legislation in the world. We’re just kind of relying on them to be the leaders in these conversations.

LBM: Some of the pro-plastic countries you mentioned, like the US, might argue that, rather than stalling plastic production, there should be more plastic capturing. Is that the case?

AC: That’s where the conversation naturally leads to when people are opposed to reducing production. They say, ‘well it’s not a plastic production issue; it’s a pollution issue’. The issue with microplastics and plastic in general, though, is that it’s so hard to catch. There are so many different places that [plastic] dissipates into the air. My laptop is made out of plastic, and I’m sure it’s shedding microplastics into the air, and there’s no entrapment that’s feasible for that.

Microplastics could be less than five nanometers. It can be small enough for a dinoflagellate – a little single celled organism – to eat. That’s nearly impossible to catch in a filter. So, while it is important to catch plastic pollution, the main focus should be on production cuts.

LBM: Where is the treaty heading next?

AC: It’s moving on to Ottawa, Canada. It’s the same treaty, they just move it around the world. The first one was in November/December of last year, in Uruguay, and then we moved to Paris in June and then Nairobi this past couple of weeks. It’s off to Ottawa in April and then South Korea in November/December. It moves around, which allows for more country involvement, or non-governmental organization involvement.

LBM: That’s quite the tour.

AC: Yeah, we’re going to see if we can attend all of them, shooting around the world.

Aidan Charron was speaking to Leo Bear-McGuinness, a Science Writer and Editor for Technology Networks.