#PlasticsTreaty Shorts: Three Principles with Chris Dixon


Theme Music – Pling by Dorian Roy

Chris Dixon
I could give you a list as long as my arm of things that I would like to see in the plastics treaty – but if I was to kind of prioritize how I think we can get at the goals that we want which is having a treaty that is rights-based, that addresses both environmental and human health and captures the full lifecycle of plastics, I think that we need to consider how we can use some guiding principles to sort of shepherd us in the right direction when it comes to drafting concrete policy.

Anja Krieger
Welcome to Plastisphere, the podcast on plastics, people, and the planet. My name is Anja Krieger. Today I share with you the first installment of a series of shorts inputs on the Plastics Treaty. This international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment, is currently being drafted by the global community. One of the experts attending the meetings is Christina Dixon from the Environmental Investigation Agency. The EIA is an NGO which has campaigned against environmental crime and abuse since the 1980s, from whaling to ivory trade, to ozone depletion and climate change. Chris Dixon is their expert on plastic pollution at the London office, and she sent me food for thought with the voice message you are about to hear. How do we get to a successful plastics treaty? Chris says there are some fundamental principles that can guide us there.

Chris Dixon
So, to my mind, there are three things that really jump out as key considerations. One is the precautionary principle, two is the zero-waste hierarchy, and three is the polluter-pays-principle.

And I think that embedding principles within the treaty text that we’re going to be working on is going to be absolutely critical to get at the kind of accountability that we need to see for plastic producers, so those that are really driving the environmental and human health and human rights issues that are at the root of the plastics issue.

But also the kind of transparency piece, there is so much that’s involved in the manufacturing and distribution and trade and disposal of plastics that we don’t know because there’s no transparency around plastics as a material. So I think that being guided by these principles can help us get to some of that information and accountability that will then really drive the solutions that we need to see.

I think when it comes to things like polluter-pays, you could ask yourself, well, what does that really mean in practice? That could be things like taxes on virgin plastics, it could require the producers of plastics to pay into specific funds that are then distributed to help remediate plastic pollution in the environment. Just as an example, but I think there are loads more.

And when it comes to the precautionary principle, that can really sound a bit like, well, what is that, legal speak? But it’s a really important aspect of environmental law, it’s about thinking about, well, we don’t have to have all the information in order to act. We know enough to know that we should be concerned, and acting now will actually be the thing that can help us protect human health and the environment for generations to come.

And key elements of this could be things like shifting the burden of proof on producers – so, at the moment, it’s up to us to demonstrate that materials are not safe, that they could pose a threat to human and environmental health. Well, how about producers are required to demonstrate that something is safe before it goes to market. That’s just an example.

But at it’s core, it’s really about ensuring that those of us who are encountering plastics as a material as consumers, we have enough information to make informed choices. Right now, we don’t have access to information, and we’re not able to make informed choices. And that’s really a critical issue.

And then, I mean, the zero-waste hierarchy is not a particularly new concept, I think it will be familiar to a lot of you listening to this. But using that as a frame for thinking about the interventions for dealing with plastic pollution is really important. And it helps move us away from a conversation that’s just about dealing with recycling or end-of-life treatments for plastic.

It’s about, well, what are the measures that are actually going to help us not have plastic waste in the first place, so prevention, and really having those as the first port of call. And using that kind of lens to view plastic pollution and control measures within the treaty, that helps us get at things like capping production, it gets towards reuse systems, preventing packaging, and packaging waste in the first place because we’re designing it out of the system so that we don’t need it.

So I think, I could talk all day about this, but those are the three principles that would really help us, and for me getting those enshrined within the treaty text is a top priority, alongside a whole host of other things.

Anja Krieger
That was Chris Dixon from the Environmental Investigation Agency in the UK.

I find those guiding principles really helpful as a framework for the treaty. The precautionary principle is an idea that goes back all the way to the 1970s, when the environmental movement was born. It cautions to act on potential harms of human innovations – even when the science is not entirely clear yet. So while the risks of plastics and chemicals are still investigated and debated, it’s important to take them serious and act in precaution.

The second principle stems from the same era, 50 years ago. The polluter-pays principle states that polluters cannot leave the burden of dealing with the consequences to communities. But that’s what happens today in most countries with plastic pollution. Producers are not paying for the clean-up of plastics and chemical pollution, or for the impacts on human health and the environment. If we apply the polluter-pays idea, they could be made responsible.

And the third principle is the Zero Waste Hierarchy. If you haven’t heard about it, look it up online. It’s a great guide on how to reduce our waste – from rethinking use and design to disposal as the last resort.

That’s it for today. Thanks to Chris for her message! If you’d like to share a thought or demand for the plastics treaty, you can contribute too. My mailbox is open for your voice messages until the end of the negotiations. I will pick some of these messages for a short podcast episode like this one. You can find recording instructions and my email address in the shownotes. See you soon for more food for thought!