Living on Earth: A Treatise on Plastics


Release date: Week of February 25, 2022

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The global community agrees that plastic pollution threatens our environment. However, many countries have offered divergent approaches to dealing with this crisis when it comes to developing an international treaty. (Photo: Justin Dolske, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The United Nations Environment Assembly is meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, from February 28 to March 2, to begin drafting a treaty on the millions of tonnes of plastic suffocating the oceans and marine life. International lawyer and former UN official Kilaparti Ramakrishna, who now works for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, speaks with host Bobby Bascomb.


CURWOOD: From PRX and Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios at the University of Massachusetts Boston, comes Living on Earth. I am Steve Curwood.

BASCOMB: And I’m Bobby Bascomb.

The United Nations drafts an international treaty to deal with the millions of tons of plastic suffocating the oceans and marine life. The United Nations Environment Assembly is meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, from February 28 to March 2, to begin defining how such a treaty might work. Fifty-four nations led by Peru and Rwanda, including the EU, are calling for a legally binding agreement that would address the full life cycle of plastic. Japan wants the treaty to deal only with plastic pollution flowing into the oceans, while India says a treaty should only consider single-use plastic with a non-legally binding agreement. It will probably take two or more meetings to hammer out the details, and here to help us figure out what to expect in the first session, Kilaparti Ramakrishna. He is an international lawyer who has advised the UN on climate and biodiversity treaties and is now a senior adviser to the president and director of ocean and climate policy at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Rama, welcome back to Living on Earth.

RAMAKRISHNA: It’s great to be back. Thank you.

The plastic industry is drowning our beaches in trash, a colossal challenge that the meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly hopes to address. (Photo: Paolo Margari, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

BASCOMB: So one of the fundamental questions here is whether this agreement should be binding or not? What are the consequences if a country does not abide by a treaty that it has agreed to be legally binding?

RAMAKRISHNA: The idea that we need measures that address plastic pollution, in the oceans and on land, is widely recognised. The only question is: binding or non-binding. If, for example, the United States ratifies an international agreement, it immediately becomes the law of the land. And any violation could be taken up by anyone, any citizen, any civil society group, can sue the United States in court, national courts, and demand compliance with it . But we are in a new phase of international governance, where targets are set and incentives are offered. And if you do that, then you can make progress. Take, for example, the Millennium Development Goals adopted in 2000. And the Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015. They are not binding legal instruments, far from it. And yet, a lot of progress has been made under both–you know, not enough by any stretch of the imagination–but even without a binding legal instrument, you could make progress. And I think that’s where we are right now. There will be a lot of discussion about how this should be a binding legal instrument. But I think we kind of have to get away from that as the only deciding factor in whether or not we’ve been successful in containing plastic pollution.

With the need to operate by consensus, the United Nations is often criticized for creating non-binding treaties that lack legal “teeth”. Regarding the UNEA meeting on plastics, Kilaparti Ramakrishna of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution suggests that there are other ways to gauge the success of international agreements. (Photo: United Nations Photo, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

BASCOMB: Well, it’s certainly a very complicated subject. Some countries are looking for a stricter model to tackle this problem and others want a weaker approach. Where do you see the breakdown there? For example, why do different countries take such different approaches, do you think?

RAMAKRISHNA: We are going back to our traditional North/South divide, because production, use and disposal have always been the responsibility of industrialized countries. And it is, of course, a cheaper way to do a lot of things for developing countries. And when you start talking about everything you produce, you have to be able to reuse it, etc., it becomes more expensive. So that’s where the division comes in. But at the same time, as has been the case with a number of other agreements that we talk about, including climate, developing countries are not saying, we are against this, because we want to continue polluting the environment with the cheap plastics. But it’s always a matter of, well, if you want us to do more and get it right, we need support. And if you’re willing to, we can talk about it. But often we have these commitments or promises, but no real follow-up to help countries do what they have to. And this is where the problem comes.

The United Nations Environment Assembly is meeting from February 28 to March 2 to discuss the plastic pollution crisis, in hopes of eventually creating an international treaty. (Photo: United Nations Photo, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

BASCOMB: Well, to what extent shouldn’t that be the burden, both on the developed countries, which, you know, rightly created the problem, okay, that’s where a big part of the plastic that ends up in our oceans and on our beaches. But, you know, it’s basically companies creating it, right? It’s, you know, the plastic manufacturers, it’s the petrochemical industry that creates all of this plastic and a lot of it creates it in a way that doesn’t easily recycle. To what extent do we have to, you know, look to them for solution and accountability?

RAMAKRISHNA: Oh, absolutely. Well, interestingly, there are all kinds of alliances being built with the petrochemical industry, and you know, the ones that are major players in the production, use, and disposal of plastics. We’ve seen statements from companies like Coca Cola and others endorsing it. And so there’s a lot of good movement, you know, but the fact is that you can’t create a crime or an offense retroactively. You know, if it’s permitted by law to do the kinds of things that companies have done, you know, they’ve done, you know, so the question is, regulation plays a role and the rules of the game fair trade makes a, you know, huge difference. That’s why it’s not enough for one country to try to clean things up by ensuring that the private sector fully complies with regulations, national regulations, because we live in a highly globalized society. And, you know, if you don’t enforce those regulations consistently across the board, you won’t have the ability to make the kind of progress that you need.

The petrochemical industry, which produces plastics on a colossal scale, is often cited as one of the actors who should be held responsible for the crisis. (Photo: Louis Vest, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

BASCOMB: Well, what will success look like to you when this meeting is over?

RAMAKRISHNA: So if it is a crisis, and we know so much about it, this body should make it clear to the intergovernmental negotiating committee what to include in the agreement. It should also clearly establish a deadline for the conclusion of the agreement. I firmly believe that without deadlines, we will not move forward. And most importantly, it should say that the agreement calls for scientists to work and report regularly to establish baselines and track the impact of the agreement on various metrics, and how to move forward with that.

Kilaparti Ramakrishna is Senior Advisor to the President and Director of Ocean and Climate Policy at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. (Photo: Green Climate Fund, courtesy of Kilaparti Ramakrishna)

And it should recognize the kind of different roles that different regions play, you know, making sure that, you know, I don’t want to use the term common but differentiated responsibilities, which is, you know, almost like a Bible for the climate negotiators – and do it, and whether there is a possibility of not creating a divide between North and South in the text of the treaty, but of making it a global problem and of needing global solutions. I think this is also a step in the right direction.

BASCOMB: Kilaparti Ramakrishna is Senior Advisor to the President and Director of Ocean and Climate Policy at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Thank you so much for taking this time with me today.

RAMAKRISHNA: Thank you Bobby.


The United Nations Environment Program

United Nations Environment Assembly | “Fifth Session of the United Nations Environment Assembly-UNEA-5”

mongabay | “As the world drowns in plastic waste, the UN will make a treaty”

About Kilaparti Ramakrishna


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