UC Santa Barbara’s Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory recently joined the United Nations in making historic progress toward a plastic-free world. Over 175 countries around the globe convened in Nairobi, Kenya on Nov. 13 for the third part of a five-session debate to discuss the terms of a global, legally binding Plastics Treaty. 

The call for a globally binding agreement toward combating plastic pollution was first initiated in 2017 by an Expert Group from the United Nations Environment Assembly. In September 2023, the zero draft was published, providing a list of proposed plans for use in the following Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) session. A deadlock was reached after a week of negotiations on November 20, as a few countries remained wary of the treaty’s repercussions. 

Among the presenters in the United Nations Environment Programme assembly was Nivedita Biyani, a postdoctoral researcher in UC Santa Barbara’s Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory. In collaboration with the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management and UC Berkeley’s Eric and Wendy Schmidt Center for Data Science & Environment, Biyani and her team developed a novel, interactive AI model that combines predictive analytics and innovative graphic design to deliver an impactful message about the state of our plastic footprint in 2050. 

This AI model features an interactive guide that allows viewers to select a treaty policy outcome and directly visualize its impacts. Under a “business as usual” scenario, the amount of plastic generated between 2010 and 2050 — 3.19 billion metric tons — would tower over Manhattan in a pile 3.5 kilometers high. 

This project was built upon the historic data set by Roland Geyer, a professor at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, which contains all known plastic production from 1950 to 2020. Douglas McCauley, a professor in UCSB’s Department of Ecology, Evolution, & Marine Biology, reached out to Geyer regarding the possibility of further utilizing the data set in projecting future estimated plastic waste. McCauley formed a research team — Biyani being one of them — who worked together to complete the model over the course of eight months. 

One question raised by the interactive model from the negotiation is how plastic and waste measurement will change in different regions of the world. While the current answer lies in the lack of data, Biyani points out that the model complements what other presenters have brought to the panel and hopes that the cumulative data can help to appease dissenters. 

“I look forward to more collaborative signs being done in this space, where we get to answer the questions that concern every country,” she said.

A screenshot from the interactive model developed by UCSB and UCB researchers, illustrating potential future plastic waste scenarios in the city of Manhattan. Courtesy of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley.

Still, there is opposition to the treaty. Although the solution to this environmental crisis may seem clear, Biyani maintains that it is not so simple. “Whether it’s a building, clothes or packaging, plastic has allowed us to produce at an enormous [and] cheap scale,” Biyani said. “Are we ready to say goodbye to that scale? What would be the cost? That is really the question being asked.” Many countries that rely on petroleum products are concerned the treaty would negatively impact employment and the wellbeing of their economy. 

Biyani suggests that since the goal of reducing plastics is universal, this could act as the foundation for countries to build upon. Every nation involved needs to be on the same page in order to move forward. 

“One thing that every country could agree on is that they don’t want plastics in the larger environment as pollution,” Biyani said. “No matter which country or delegation, they all unanimously agreed.” 

Biyani urges higher authorities and corporations to find ways to minimize the burden of plastic pollution on regular consumers. 

“The mother of three kids, the nurse, the fire fighter, the hard working academics … they don’t really have the time to think about their plastic usage,” she said. 

Biyani believes that creating a globally binding policy is one of the solutions to improve the destructive plastic management system. 

 Despite this impasse, Biyani remains hopeful. 

“I think the fact that all the countries were there and represented in INC-3 and the previous INCs means that they’re concerned and are willing to talk. So there’s a huge momentum behind this, and I definitely think the outcome of that momentum is positive.” 

The following two INC sessions are tentatively scheduled in Ottawa, Canada and Seoul, South Korea in 2024. While Biyani and her team work toward pushing the treaty past its deadlock, in the meantime she has some advice about what the UCSB community can do to make an impact: 

“Spread the word about the [model], contact your legislators to make sure they are voicing your opinion during this treaty and be aware of your carbon footprint.”