World Leaders Are Working on the ‘Paris Agreement’ of Plastic Pollution

There’s a Paris Agreement-style treaty for plastic from the UN, Australian humpbacks are no longer endangered, and Yellowstone is thriving at 150 years old—plus more good climate news.
Photo shows a woman on a beach holding a stack of plastic waste that has washed up. The new UN treaty should help to solve the world's plastic problem.
UN Environment Assembly attendees will now negotiate a plastic treaty. | Joel Sharpe/Getty

Representatives from nearly 200 countries have agreed to develop a legally binding treaty on plastics comparable to 2015’s Paris Climate Agreement. 

Meanwhile, Australia’s mighty humpback whales are officially no longer on the nation’s endangered species list. And Yellowstone, one of the most famous national parks in the world, just turned 150.

In the UK, a new survey indicates that urban-dwelling hedgehogs are increasing in numbers, thanks to concerted conservation efforts and the prickly mammal’s enduring popularity. Finally, repurposing wind turbine waste could be the next big trend in sustainable construction.

Here’s this week’s good climate news.

Photo shows plastic bottles and other trash littered on a white sand beach. The UN plastic treaty, which is still being negotiated, could help to halt such extreme plastic pollution.
The new UN treaty could help to fight plastic pollution. | Ascent X Media/Getty

Leaders work to address the blight of plastic pollution 

The good news: World leaders met in Nairobi, Kenya, last week at the UN Environment Assembly and agreed to begin work on a legally binding treaty to tackle plastics once and for all. Representatives from 173 different nations have agreed on the resolution, which will cover the “full lifecycle” of plastics, including production, design, and disposal. It has been compared by many to the Paris Climate Agreement, due to both its importance and public frustration on inaction so far. The resolution will also mark the first time that low-paid waste pickers are officially recognized by such legislation, a significant and meaningful development.

The impact: As plastic production continues to increase, and as recycling measures fall short, pollution has become one of the most important environmental issues of the moment. The new treaty is urgently needed, and as with fossil fuels and the climate crisis, humanity must adjust its excessive and unsustainable dependence on plastic. The agreement will be negotiated over the next two years, but United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) director Inger Andersen has warned that participants must keep working on the problem of plastic pollution in the meantime.

Did you know? Around 8 million pieces of plastic pollution reach the ocean per day. It’s in wildlife, the earth, the air, our food, and even in us. But around the world, people are finding ways to prevent plastic waste from becoming pollution. Some companies are turning trash into hard-wearing building blocks, while others are using recycled ocean waste to make litter pickers, both synchronous and effective solutions. Some scientists have even found a way to turn plastic into vanilla flavoring by breaking it down with enzymes.

How you can help: Cutting back on your own plastic waste by purchasing recycled or reusable products can make a huge difference. But plastic is everywhere, from clothing to makeup, and transitioning to zero waste and low-impact products where possible will help minimize your overall footprint. While litter picking may feel like a drop (of plastic) in the ocean, it’s easy to do whether you’ve got five minutes or an afternoon. Organizations like the National Trust and Surfers Against Sewage regularly organize beach cleans, but you can easily organize your own with some friends, trash bags, and thick work gloves. (Be safe.)

Photo shows an adult humpback whale breaching out of the water.
Australian humpbacks have finally recovered after the end of whaling. | Marnie Griffiths/Getty

Australian humpbacks are no longer endangered

The good news: Australia just removed humpback whales from its endangered species list approximately 60 years after whaling came to an end. Today, the population is estimated to be around 40,000 individuals, up from just 1,500 at the height of the industry. The decision is a welcome success for Australia, where the ecosystem is rapidly reaching a breaking point. (Just last month, the koala was officially declared endangered due to falling numbers.)

The impact: Whales are incredibly important for entire ecosystems, the oceans, and the world itself. They are a keystone species, which means they play an irreplaceable role in their natural environment and prop up countless other species by the very existence. (The health of whales can even be used as a barometer for overall marine health.)

Did you know? Along with other marine animals, like sharks, whales help to absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere throughout their lives. So humpbacks, which are one of the huge “great whale” species, sequester an average of 33 tons of CO2 during their lengthy lifespans. They can grow to more than 50 feet in length and weigh in excess of 40 tons, while males create and sing songs that can be heard up to 20 miles away. Whale songs, in general, are widely thought to be one of the most sophisticated forms of all animal communication.

How you can help: The best way for people to help whales is to help reduce their environmental footprint, as global issues like climate change and plastic pollution mean that humpbacks and other marine animals will face growing obstacles in the coming years. Cutting back on seafood will also help reduce your impact on these deep-sea giants, as will being ocean conscious during all trips and travels. Support whale conservation through organizations such as the WDC, the WWF, the Ocean Alliance, and ORCA.

Photo shows a herd of buffalos resting in Yellowstone national park.
Yellowstone has been the center of some of the most successful rewilding projects in the world. | Jaana Eleftheriou/Getty

Yellowstone National Park celebrates 150 years

The good news: The US’s iconic Yellowstone National Park turns 150 years old this year, and its inhabitants are thriving. Established as a park in 1882, Yellowstone is located primarily in Wyoming but also reaches into Idaho and Montana. It’s home to nearly 300 bird species, 16 fish, six reptile, five amphibian, and 67 mammal, including bison—a previously endangered, herbivorous ungulate that has inhabited the region since prehistoric times.

The impact: Yellowstone has been home to some of the most notable conservation and rewilding successes, from bison to grey wolves. (At least 95 of the latter currently live in the park itself, with around 528 in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.) As noted by National Park Service director Chuck Sams, Yellowstone’s sesquicentennial is also an opportunity to celebrate the birth of the entire national parks system, both in the US and around the world.

Did you know? While Yellowstone’s many successes are worth celebrating, it’s also important to note that Indigenous peoples have lived on and cared for the region for thousands of years until they were pushed out of the park entirely. There are 27 current Tribes with historic connections to the land now contained within Yellowstone. Many experts, advocates, and activists suggest that returning national parks, conservation areas, and other stolen areas to Native stewardship would represent a combination of environmental and land justice.

How you can help: You can learn more about the rewilding of wolves in Yellowstone here, and check out the NPS’s guide to supporting the network here. Volunteering at, donating to, and sharing your love of national parks all help to make a difference. If visiting Yellowstone, remember to treat the flora, fauna, and trails with care and respect. (You could be walking on tracks through the ecosystem that have existed for thousands of years of human history.)

Photo shows a hedgehog in the grass next to mushrooms.
While rural hedgehogs are still in trouble, urban populations are rebounding. | Mike Powles/Getty

The UK’s beloved urban hedgehog population is back

The good news: While smaller in size than humpbacks or bison, hedgehogs are a popular visitor in UK gardens. The new State of Britain’s Hedgehogs 2022 report describes a stable urban population that shows signs of recovery, thanks in part to everyday conservation efforts like hedgehog highways to link gardens, hedgehog homes, and feeding stations.

The impact: Hedgehogs are currently listed on the UK’s red list for mammals as vulnerable to extinction, and their overall population has decreased by a third since the year 2000. According to the new report, rural populations are continuing to fall. This is primarily due to Britain’s shocking habitat destruction and lack of biodiversity, which is affecting hedgehogs’ homes and food. Fortunately, urban efforts to save the animal offer a glimmer of hope.

Did you know? Hedgehogs have been present in the UK for at least half a million years, and the nocturnal critters were voted the nation’s favorite mammal back in 2016. They are nocturnal, which makes accurate population estimates tricky. They’re also called hedgehogs for a reason, thanks to their predilection for undergrowth nests and the pig-like grunting noises they make when foraging.

How you can help: The national “Hedgehog Street” conservation initiative (established over a decade ago by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species) has helped to popularize hedgehog awareness. Many of the same rules for encouraging bugs, pollinators, and other essential wildlife applies to hedgehogs, namely to make your garden as diverse and untidy as possible! The charity has a whole page here dedicated to helping hedgehogs, or you can donate to support their work.

Photo shows engineers working with recycled wind turbines to build a bridge.
Reusing wind turbine blades in construction projects solves two problems at once. | ReWind

Engineers are upcycling wind turbines into bridges

The good news: There are now two bridges in the world made out of disused wind turbine blades. One was built last year over the Szprotawa River in Poland, and opened at the start of 2022, while another has just been installed in County Cork, Ireland. Reusing the blades as bridges is a promising idea as it keeps the existing materials out of landfills and reduces the impact of new construction projects.

The impact: Wind is an important way of generating renewable energy, but people are still figuring out what to do with the enormous blades once they reach their end of life. (The US is currently removing around 8000 old blades per year, and Europe is taking down nearly 4000.) While other components can be recycled, the blades themselves are made with fiberglass, and the vast majority go to landfills.

Fiberglass is useful due to its strength and durability, but it is not currently recyclable and, when broken up or damaged, its particles can be harmful to human health. However, innovative solutions like the above that repurpose the blades into new materials (or up-and-coming technologies that promise easier recycling) could change this.

Did you know? Wind power is one of the most sustainable and efficient ways to generate renewable energy, and it has become one of the most popular sources of power in the US. In addition to energy generation, the industry also helps to create jobs and supports economic growth in the surrounding areas. Wind power is likely to increase in popularity in the coming years, along with hydro and solar power, both similarly clean sources of energy.

How you can help: Keep up to date with the companies and organizations working on reusing wind turbine blades, such as Re-Wind and ANMET, and advocate for recycling and reuse wherever you can in your life. A circular economy is by far the most sustainable, and as the world changes in response to global warming and other environmental factors, we will have to focus on repairing and valuing what we already have. Building materials, and even wind turbine blades, are no exception.

Looking for more good climate news? Read the previous installments here.

x

Pin It on Pinterest