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What is the Global Plastic Treaty? (And a Circular Economy)

A basic explanation of the Global Plastic Treaty and a circular economy, and why it matters to Christians.

Written by Tarryn Pegna | 28 Feb 2023

A road filled with plastic waste after heavy rains in Kinshasa, the capital city of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

Plastic waste floods the streets after heavy rains in Kinshasa, the capital city of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). | Image credit: Richard Malengule/Tearfund

In March 2022, world leaders agreed to work together on the first ever international agreement to address plastic pollution. Until then, there hadn’t been a coordinated approach to this huge global problem. By the end of 2024, leaders from 200 governments around the world will have agreed on the contents of a Global Plastic Treaty. To do so, they will be meeting together approximately five times, with the next round of talks set for May 2023.

And Tearfund is calling for this treaty to fully address how plastic pollution impacts people living in poverty.

Some sad plastic waste statistics

Let’s start with the easiest bit to understand – some (rubbish) facts:

  • We (humans) throw away about 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year. That’s enough to cover almost 50,000 football pitches a day.
  • Two billion people – one in four of us – have no safe way to dispose of our rubbish, so are forced to live and work amongst mountains of disease-breeding waste.
  • This is making people sick – releasing toxic fumes, flooding communities and causing up to a million deaths each year. That’s one person dying every 30 seconds from diseases caused by the waste problem.
  • The UK throws away four double-decker busloads of plastic waste every minute.
  • Around the world, 60 rubbish-truck’s-worth of plastic is dumped in our oceans every hour.
  • Only nine per cent of plastic is recycled.
‘Two billion people – one in four of us – have no safe way to dispose of our rubbish, so are forced to live and work amongst mountains of disease-breeding waste.’

So, where does the other 91 per cent of all that plastic go?

Around 49 per cent goes to landfill – altering habitats and natural environments and damaging ecosystems’ natural ability to adapt to climate change.

A little under 20 per cent is burned. Often, with no alternative available, waste is burned on street corners or in open dumps. This releases toxic fumes, which increase people’s risk of heart disease, cancer, respiratory infections and other horrible, potentially fatal health conditions, as well contributing to the climate crisis.

A little over 20 per cent becomes litter. Some of this clogs rivers and drains, making flooding worse and affecting access to clean water. Recent heavy rains in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for example, saw head-height floods of plastic waste in places – a terrifying and deadly consequence of the plastic pollution problem.

The plastic treaty must address all these problems

But how?

Tearfund has been helping to advocate for a full response to the plastic waste problem – one that acknowledges the fact that plastic pollution isn’t just a problem in our oceans and seas, but a far greater issue and one that is very closely linked to poverty.

Alongside this, Tearfund is working to help ensure that the voices of a whole sector of people working around the world as informal waste pickers are heard in the treaty negotiations.

A Christian perspective on plastic pollution

Our core, Christ-centred belief is that restoration of relationships with God, each other, ourselves and creation are key to overcoming poverty. As we take seriously the call to love God and our neighbour as ourselves (as Jesus said in Matthew 22), it is right that we constantly work to find new ways to help protect people around us.

When we consider how we, as humanity, currently use and discard plastic waste on a global scale, it is clear that we are treating both creation and each other in a way that does not show love, but rather in a way that is self-seeking and destructive. 

‘As we take seriously the call to love God and our neighbour as ourselves, it is right that we constantly work to find new ways to help protect people around us.’

If you’d like to explore these issues more with your church, we have lots of resources for Sunday sermons, Bible study groups, children’s church and more.

The plastic waste problem and the circular economy

Today, half of all plastic is designed to be used just once before being discarded.

This is where we meet the need for what is being called the circular economy.

It works like this:

1. Eliminate waste and pollution

Currently, much of the world’s economy works on a take-make-waste system. We take raw materials, we make things, and once we’ve used them, they get thrown away.

This is a bad way of working – both because the planet’s resources aren’t never-ending, and because of the giant waste problem that it creates.

Nature has no waste. Waste is something that we humans have invented.

In a circular economy, we need to ensure that, as in nature, products are designed to re-enter the cycle in one form or another after their use – and not to become useless waste.

In this way we can…

2. Keep things circulating

In other words, we find ways for things to stay in use in one form or another. So, nothing becomes waste.

This could be by items or materials being maintained, shared, reused, repaired, refurbished, remanufactured, and, as a last resort, recycled. And, of course, materials that can be returned to nature (like food) can help regenerate the production of raw materials.

3. Regenerate natural resources

This is about shifting our focus from only taking, to regenerating. For example, we can do this by farming in a way that allows nature to rebuild soils, increase biodiversity and return biological materials to the earth.

A waste picker collects plastic bottles in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

A waste picker collects plastic bottles in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. | Image credit: Daniel Msirikale/Tearfund

Back to the plastic treaty

In very practical terms, the plastic treaty needs to make sure it considers the following things:

Firstly, we need to substantially reduce the amount of single-use plastics being generated. Particularly things like the small sachets used in many low- and middle-income countries to allow big companies to sell small quantities of their products at a time.

Secondly, we need to ensure that the remaining plastic is collected and recycled safely and responsibly.

Waste must not only be collected, but we must get value back from it in ways that minimise harm to people, workers and the environment.

And improvements in waste collection should take into account people already working informally as waste pickers – drawing on their strengths and enabling them to be part of the new, safer, improved systems.

Lastly, we need global commitments that are binding on both governments and companies – holding them to account and which cannot be watered down or gone back on.

Protecting human rights

Fundamentally, the plastic pollution crisis is not only an environmental problem, but a social one.

This plastic treaty should include a clear recognition of the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment – something that is currently being denied to at least 2 billion people.

It should recognise the human right to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment – particularly for workers in the informal waste sector.

It should include a comprehensive plan to tackle the impacts of waste and plastic pollution on people living in poverty.

The time for governments – and for all of us – to act is now.

‘Poverty – and plastic pollution – are not God’s plan. You are.’

You can get involved in making a difference by joining us in calling on leaders and governments to make the right decisions and to follow through on them.

You can help to make a difference right now by signing this petition.

Pray with us for the global plastic treaty

    • Lift up all those negotiating on the treaty. Ask that God will give them wisdom and insight, that they will ensure the agreement addresses the human impact of plastic pollution and brings about an end to open dumping and burning.
    • Pray for people living in poverty who are most heavily affected by the plastic waste problem. Pray that solutions would be found and implemented quickly.
    • Pray for creative solutions to product needs. Ask God to help designers come up with new alternatives to plastic that can be part of a cycle that includes regeneration of natural resources.

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Written by  Tarryn Pegna

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