Pristine Ocean: Christina Dixon as ocean campaign lead, you're working for the EIA, the environmental investigation agency to support the development of a United nations back treaty to end plastic pollution. Before we get into the nuts and bolts and the details and find out what this treaty is all about. What's at stake for the planet.

Tell me what's going to happen. If this treaty does not fly.

Christina Dixon: It's no shock to people listening that plastic pollution is a huge issue. Over the last few years, we've become increasingly aware of quite how prevalent plastic pollution is.

Plastic pollution is not just a marine litter issue. It's something that is polluting across the entire life cycle of plastics from the moment that plastics are created, then leaking into the environment. We've now seen studies that show plastic is in our blood.

This is a human health issue as well as a planetary crisis. And it's really linked to the other planetary crises. The climate emergency and also biodiversity loss. What we call the triple planetary crisis.

So it sounds hyperbolic, But really that's where we are now. Our ecosystems are on the brink of collapse.

This is something that is is permeating across all environments in our bodies. In the animals, the wildlife, the oceans it's everywhere. And so we can no longer hide from this problem that we've created. We need to do something about it .

There's a lot of political will around doing this and that's really come from all of the public pressure, the awareness about plastic pollution. And so that's the, where we've got to the point where the United nations have agreed to negotiate a new plastics treaty. And this is really historic, but obviously the hard work is yet come. Yes.

Pristine Ocean: You're talking about and the treaty talks about plastic pollution, but most of what we see most of the shocking scenes have to do with the contrast with ocean. Pristine oceans and these terrible pictures of mounds of plastic on beaches and the injuries caused to wildlife and so on.

But here we're talking about plastic pollution. How do those two things relate to each other.

Christina Dixon: That's actually a really fascinating aspect of how this conversation has evolved because for most of us, for you and I, the way that we first encountered the issue of plastic pollution was exactly as you described, learning about the great Pacific garbage patch going on beach cleanups seeing in the news whales with stomachs full of plastic bags and fishing gear . That was , the really visible face of the problem.

And I don't think we can understate the impact of programs like blue planets, which really shine a light on how these pristine. Ecosystems and our oceans were suddenly being in conflict with this human created problem. So, that famous photograph of the seahorse holding the cotton, bud.

These things really capture the public imagination, but plastic pollution in the oceans, that's the end product. The actual problem really begins on land. it comes from the moment we start to design plastic products, create plastic. When plastic becomes a material it's already creating a problem.

Your listeners might be familiar with, for example, a ship off the coast of Sri Lanka the Xpress Pearl in 2021, which leaked, tens of thousands of plastic pellets into the environment, plastic pallets are the building blocks of, of plastic or the products that we use day to day.

And the impact of that, closed the fishery. Piles and piles of plastic pellets. Stacked up on the beaches. It's a huge environmental catastrophe and also these pellets are toxic. So now it's contaminating seafood. Whilst the visible aspects of plastic pollution are definitely in our oceans, we have to understand that, well, how did those pellets get to be in the ocean, what happened and that's to do with how they were manufactured and how they were transported.

So the conversation has really moved from the symptom, to looking at the root causes and the root causes of plastic pollution.

It's just a slight change in the framing, but it's really important because in order to see that the interventions that are required to really change the system, not just clean up the oceans, that's like, mopping up the floor without turning off the tap.

It's really interesting that within the global policy space, some of the countries that are leading the movement for a global plastics treaty are actually landlocked.

So for example, Rwanda was one of the most ambitious and vocal countries saying, we really need a global approach to tackling plastic pollution. And that's a landlocked country. They don't even have an ocean, but they understand the impacts of plastic pollution are far, far broader they're in rivers lakes, in the soils,

Agricultural plastics for example, are a huge source of microplastic pollution. We can't just see this as an ocean issue. That's how many of us connect with the topic, but it's much, much bigger than that..

How much plastic is out there?

Pristine Ocean: How is it possible to know how much plastic is out there in the environment? We often hear this number of eight to 11 million tons of plastic in the environment each year. But how reliable is that? How do we know how much is being produced? How much do we know is being shipped from a global north to the global south? How much is landing in the water? How do we know about this..

Christina Dixon: That's a very good question. And I suppose the short answer is that we, don't.

We're sort of fumbling around in the dark, we're using the best available science that there is. So there's, there's been a number of, studies to quantify, the global impacts of plastic pollution.

The one that you referenced about the 8 million tons that's the best information that we have.

The information that we have currently about plastic production is information that's voluntarily provided by the plastics industry.

What a global plastics treaty could do for is actually tells us how much plastic has been produced.

Pristine Ocean: And I guess we're not just talking here about plastic pollution that happens locally, but also a lot of plastic gets exported from, from the global north to the global south.

Christina Dixon: EIA have done some studies looking at global export data, looking at both legal and illegal trade. And it's a huge area, but there's still, a lack of transparency.

When it comes to the treaty, what we would be hoping to see would be, requirements for reporting on virgin plastic production.

Pristine Ocean: When you say Virgin plastic production, you're talking about I assume. The non-recycled plastic that is being produced. directly from fossil fuels.

Christina Dixon: We know that capping plastic production is really going to be the only way to actually address plastic pollution, in all environments, including the oceans.

But we don't even have an accurate figure globally for how much plastic is out there.

One of the first tasks of a new plastics treaty is to set up reporting on plastic production.

Pristine Ocean: When we think about plastic pollution and solutions to dealing with plastic pollution, we think about beach cleanups. We think about recycling. We think further upstream. How do we know which is the most important..

Christina Dixon: I think the challenge here is that the list that you provided was, was actually the kind of, order in which, we should, we should see this in terms of a hierarchy. Cleanups, I would say the least helpful approach, recycling, our system of recycling is not fit for purpose.

So really we need to be looking at. the source. Where is plastic coming from? How is it being designed and, how can we prevent and reduce? Because cleanups, you know? it's like sticking a plaster on a broken leg, right? If you look at things like the OceanCleanup interesting idea but just hugely problematic.

You're referring to the company, the ocean cleanup which is series of vessels to clean up the ocean. Right.

Christina Dixon: A piece of technology to clean up the ocean is not really solving the problem. It's just some nice PR ultimately it's not going to stop the flow of plastic into the ocean.

Pristine Ocean: And what about cleanups beach cleanups? Where are they in the hierarchy?

Christina Dixon: There is a place for cleanups in areas where there's high densities of plastic pollution. Islands that are overwhelmed with plastic pollution.

And of course, participating in things like beach cleanups, it's a great way to engage with your community and to meet other people like-minded people who are passionate about the environment, but it's not solving the problem.

I really don't want to dismiss those activities. That's also something that I enjoy doing. I love, doing beach cleanups with my local community, but I understand that that's not going to solve the problem. It's going to make that environment nicer for everyone to enjoy, but you'll come back the next day And there'll be just as much if not more plastic in the area that you've just cleaned up.

Pristine Ocean: Okay. If cleaning is not going to fix the problem. Where do we look for a solution?

Christina Dixon: We need to really go upstream.

Pristine Ocean: By upstream. You mean catching the plastic before it gets into the environment? And I guess you're talking here about a recycling.

Christina Dixon: So with recycling, countries in the global north have become dependent on exporting plastic waste in countries like Malaysia, indonesia, Turkey. There are investigations which show that those countries do not have the capacity to handle all of the plastic waste that they're importing.

So that plastic waste is actually being landfilled, burned and leaking into the environment.

Pristine Ocean: I think it's unarguable that we're going to continue using plastic to some degree. How are we going to do recycling better from your point of view?

Christina Dixon: Ultimately it's the product design. We need to think about the design of those plastic products. So how are we designing our products to ensure that they could ideally be reused? So looking at policy interventions, like deposit return schemes.

So, your bottle is staying as a bottle. It's been used by someone else as a bottle. It's the production where we need to be seeking solutions.

Pristine Ocean: It's an incredibly complex area. A lot depends I suppose, on your location and your circumstances. The situation on the ground. Whether or not a particular solution is effective or not effective.

Christina Dixon: There's no one size fits all. The solution for a landlocked country, like Rwanda is not going to be the same for a country in the Pacific Ocean like Fiji.

There are very different problems in each of those locations. Are you a country that's importing predominantly and then exporting plastic waste because you don't have capacity to recycle are you actually a producing country?

These things are all going to impact on how the countries will approach the problem.

Some countries are exporting waste. And some countries are importing waste. Some countries are landlocked and you have island states. How does the treaty handle all those differences?

Christina Dixon: One element that will be really important is looking at national action plans. Within the new treaty, each country will have a commitment to attain the sort of global targets.

The global targets are still to be defined, but there'll be some globally binding targets around the concept of reducing plastic pollution.

But each country will adapt how they intend to deliver that based on the national circumstance. and that will also depend on the financing, for example.

Finance

Pristine Ocean: Okay, let's talk about money. How does the treaty go about the handling finance. I can imagine there'd be different expectations, depending whether or not the country is a developing country or has a developed economy.

Christina Dixon: For developing countries or economies in transition, they'll require stable and predictable financing from donor countries in order to deliver on the, obligations of the agreement.

None of this will work if we don't have stable financing. So this is all the kind of complex detailed nitty-gritty stuff that will be fleshed out over the next two years. It's very clear that there isn't one solution, I wish there was but there are principles which could be broadly agreed globally.

Pristine Ocean: What are the principles that it's fairly easy to get global agreement on?

Christina Dixon: I think as a global community that we can agree, that improving waste management is very important. We need to prevent leakage.

Pristine Ocean: What about substituting plastic with other materials? Does the treaty say anything about that?

Christina Dixon: We see companies saying, okay, we'll get rid of single use plastic, but we'll replace it with single use something else, like a bioplastic or a biodegradable plastic or wood or materials have environmental consequences.

Politics

Pristine Ocean: I guess it's not just plastics that are complicated. But getting a hundred people, 200 people in a room. To agree on something must be incredibly difficult.

Christina Dixon: Yes, of course. The way that things play out in international negotiations are complicated. And There's different geopolitical interests.

There are countries that are susceptible to a huge oil and gas lobby. And we've seen increasingly that, the companies that are producing plastic, they are investing heavily in the assumption that plastic production will continue to increase. So there's, big economic interests here as well.

That's something not to be underestimated. And I think sort of neutralizing the influence of that lobby will be very important.

Pristine Ocean: So it's not just NGOs, like the EIA. That are arguing their case.

Christina Dixon: There are a lot of vested interests who will be seeking to undermine the ambition of the eventual agreement that we have. Our planet is not in a position where we can do that. We need to act now and we need to act quickly.

And I think the fact that the global community agreed to negotiate this treaty quickly is testament to the fact that there is a recognition of the urgency. We don't really have any time to waste here. The planet is in peril. That's not an understatement.

We've created an incredibly complicated and harmful problem here that we need to solve and we need to solve it together. No country is really able to do this on their own.

Tunnel

Pristine Ocean: Where does this journey actually end? You said that we're in a two year tunnel doing the. Nitty gritty of solutions and financing.

Where are we now? And what is the end game?

Christina Dixon: Right. So where we are now? So I'm speaking to you actually right now from Dakar in Senegal where there's about to be the first meeting, the prep meeting is called the open-ended working group. The OWG they do love an acronym at the UN. And so this, this OWG is basically setting the program of work for the next two years. and that will be looking at the timetable of negotiations where, there'll be who's going to host them when there'll be, and what are the topics on the table?

So you have a lot of topics on the table. How do you manage to prioritize them? How do you approach the ones that need to be handled first.

Christina Dixon: The way that that's approached is to look at what topics are going to be complicated, and going to require multiple rounds of negotiations and which ones are more straightforward.

So something like, for example, what is the objective of the agreement? That's probably sounds easy, but actually it might take multiple rounds of negotiation to get everybody to agree,

If the objective is to end plastic pollution, what does that actually look like?

So, that's, that's the kind of topics that we'll be discussing this week. Where are we trying to get to and how are we going to get there?

Pristine Ocean: Will the negotiations go on. Open-end.

Christina Dixon: The negotiations will conclude by the end of 2024, and then in early 20 25, the agreement will be open for adoption, which means that countries will then be invited to sign up.

This is international policy. It's not fast to the people who are doing it two years is like incredibly fast. But as you said, getting hundreds of people together and getting them to agree on something actually will take Two years.

Pristine Ocean: But we don't want to wait until 20, 25 to actually start acting. Presumably there is some countries that can take action right now.

Christina Dixon: Countries that are further along in their approach to addressing plastic pollution, they can already be doing, national action plans, updating national policies, setting targets to reduce, and the same for the companies. We've seen businesses like. Unilever and Nestlé coming out and, saying, actually, yes, we want a treaty that will reduce plastic production and boost the circular economy. So that's great.

Pristine Ocean: I get there's a big variety between countries about the state of where they are dealing with plastic pollution. Maybe you could give us a bit of an overview of the differences between the countries.

Christina Dixon: A lot of countries, particularly in Africa have already done widespread bans of plastic products.

In EU, for example, there's the Single Use Plastics Directive, which already targeted the most commonly found items on European beaches.

 What can the consumer do?

Pristine Ocean: What can the consumer do? What can I do in the run-up to 25?

Christina Dixon: I'm worried that everything I've said so far sounds really doom and gloomy in terms of the individual action. But I really believe that we wouldn't be in the place where we are now of getting this treaty negotiated and getting companies to say that they want to, reduce plastic production if it hadn't been for public pressure.

Individually we can be doing a lot. Writing letters to companies writing letters to retailers and saying tell me what your sustainability plan is for reducing plastic packaging.

Pristine Ocean: How do we know that this public pressure makes a difference? How do we know that the companies that are actually listening.

Christina Dixon: I do a lot of work directly with companies and they always say that that pressure from consumers really helps to drive the change inside the business. So, I think that there's a lot that we can be doing letter writing campaigning.

Pristine Ocean: There seems to be some parallels between plastic pollution and climate change. And there are some big treaties out there concerning climate change. Like. Paris.

Christina Dixon: I heard this description or let's get a Paris for plastics. I think that what we need here is, is going to be much more ambitious. And So it can't be Paris for plastics. It needs to be, Paris plus plus.

Pristine Ocean: What have you learned from those big treaties? What are the similarities and what a difference? What are the differences with plastic?

Christina Dixon: We've looked at other environmental agreements that are successful. One that we often point to is the Montreal protocol..

You might never even heard of this, but what you might have heard of is when I was a kid that hole in the ozone layer was huge. It was like, we were terrified if the hole in the ozone, my air and we were writing letters and, like it's school kids and we were, we were scared of it.

It was something that felt like a terrifying environmental threat. And the Montreal protocol is, is a environmental agreement that was essentially designed to, to look at the. The substances that were causing the hole in the ozone layer and come up with a plan to control those substances. And actually it was largely successful.

I feel like kids growing up today may not even really be aware of the holding those own layer as a problem. It's like a, it's an issue that. Was so prominent in the public consciousness, but because of a successful environmental policy intervention, where they looked at controlling and then phasing down those substances that were creating the hole in the ozone it's now not really something that we're particularly worried about.

And so that's what we really need to see with plastics. Kids today. are really worried about plastic pollution, that the so-called Attenborough effect where kids are writing letters to David Attenborough and saying how worried they are about plastic pollution having watched Blue Planet hopefully the kids in 10, 15 years, they, they won't really think about it as a problem.

Of course we'll, if we'll have moved on to a new environmental problem, but we'd

like to make, plastic pollution history, like there's no need for plastic pollution to be in the Marine environment or any invasive.

Plastics Lobby

We often hear about the plastics lobby. That, , pressuring to expand plastic production. who is the plastic sloppy, who was behind the plastics lobby and what are their interests?

And what role are the, does the plastics lobby. Play in formulating this treaty.

Christina Dixon: In terms of the plastics lobby, well the companies that are producing plastics are the same companies that are. Producing, oil and gas.

So Exxon and for example, huge, huge maker of plastics.

So one thing that we've learned, and I guess this goes back to your other question is around what can we learn from the climate negotiations and reducing the influence of the lobbying will be critical.

It's not, it's not possible to design an effective plastic treaty without involving the private sector. Companies are going to have to be involved. It's not. Actually the companies that were involved in the Montreal protocol, they kind of benefited actually because the market was essentially closed by

the restrictions that were put in place. And so there are benefits to the business, the business and business and, industry groups of having an effective plastics treaty.

However, there are, of course those people who are producing, you know, extract. Extracting the raw materials to make plastics and investing in the petrochemical sector, rollout and growth at the moment, hugely investing in that who are not going to want to, for example, restrict plastic production.

So we need to think about how we can sort of neutralize that mobi in this space. And that will be really important for the success of the agreement. So looking at progressive indices. And aligning on the areas where we do agree and building a kind of broad coalition that looks at things like, just transition. So when I talk about just transition, I mean, like creating jobs in the new economy that is less reliant on, petrochemicals and plastics. So looking at job opportunities in the. reuse economy, for example and then talking to the different stakeholder groups who will be impacted in our transition away. The current system that we have and because I think some of the arguments that we'll be hearing from the lobby is around things like jobs. and we can't let that derail the progress that we're making, because actually there is huge economic opportunity and adjust transitioned to a new, a new plastics economy. But I think that's going to be a big learning for us. And so I suppose to directly answer your question. No, yes, there is a plastics lobby. It's the. same people who we see in other, in other climate negotiate.

And they haven't been hugely visibly present. There's a, there's a few, few actors who've been following this, but I can imagine now that, the negotiations are really picking up in earnest that we'll see a lot more of them. And so ensuring that there's a strong NGO and broader coalition present in those negotiations to. Also have our presence there and ensure that, the governments are hearing a range of different perspectives, from environmental justice groups from those people living on the front line of plastic pollution the fence line communities that are living in, in cancer alley in, in, in the U S in living in the margins of, of the petrochemical expansion and feeling that impact on that health and that bodies, Hearing those voices in negotiations will be relatable.

Pristine Ocean: So is the petrochemical industry involved in the treaty? Did they have a voice?

Christina Dixon: Yes. I mean, I guess the what's still to be decided is, is one of the things that we're doing here in Dakar this week is to look at. To establish the sort of rules of procedure and what participation looks like. So, there should be participation of different stakeholder groups in the negotiations, and that, that means, people like myself but it also means the private sector. So, so that will be agreed over the current. You know, who's going to be involved in these conversations.

Who's allowed to participate. How can that be meaningful and. equitable? And that, that, goes for both, civil society, but it also goes for the private sector.

Pristine Ocean: Chris Dickson from the environmental investigation agency, you talked about doom and gloom, but it wasn't, that's not the feeling I'm taking away with me today. I really feel as though there's something going at an international level. Something positive and, and really great.

Christina Dixon: Thank you. I definitely would like to leave it on an optimistic note. I've been saying to other people is the plastics treaty is the great enabler of the change that we need to see. This is something that is going to drive change at all levels, not just internationally.

 

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