April 22, 2024

Why Wild Animals Need a Global Plastics Treaty

This Earth Day, Clinical Professor Erica Lyman explains why it will take global action to protect wild animals from the harmful effects of plastics.

Every day human consumption of plastics unleashes the dumping of approximately 1,440 dump trucks worth of plastics into our oceans. That’s an auspicious quantity on any day, but on Earth Day especially, it marks a meaningful opportunity to reconsider our use of plastics and support international efforts to establish a new global plastics treaty.

Plastics, by design, take centuries to degrade, meaning that most of the plastic ever produced continues to exist somewhere on earth, including in the least-explored depths of the sea to the highest mountains. No place on earth has escaped the wrath of plastic pollution. And that means any animal–aquatic, avian, or terrestrial–can be harmed by plastic waste.

In our oceans, microplastics and other larger-format plastic waste can lead to entanglements and choking of animals. The ingestion of plastics can lead to fatal blockages or the prevention of adequate food and nutrient uptake leading to death. On land, animals from elephants to hedgehogs suffer the consequences of plastic entanglements and ingestion. One study reports that land might contain 4-23 times the amount of plastic pollution than oceans, suggesting that the impacts on terrestrial animals and ecosystems may be understudied.

Plastics found in both the ocean and on land poison the ecosystems on which we and animals depend. As plastics break down, the chemicals comprising the plastic leach into water and soils, degrading the habitat of wild animals and affecting food chains. Moreover, microplastics can actually absorb other chemicals, which can have the effect of concentrating chemical pollution, risking even greater harm to wild animals that ingest such plastics.

These facts are barely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the consequences of plastic pollution, which means it’s a veritable no-brainer that wild animals would benefit from a global plastics treaty. While local and even national laws are taking important steps like banning single use plastics, an international treaty is necessary to recognize and address the transboundary consequences of plastic pollution and the global nature of the plastics supply chain.

Negotiations first kicked off in November 2022, backed by a UN Environment Assembly Resolution that called for the negotiation of a comprehensive legal text addressing the full life-cycle of plastic, including its production and disposal. While the text of the new treaty remains very much in a draft state, delegates from all over the world convene in Canada on this Earth Day to hopefully meaningfully advance the negotiations. It’s time to end plastic pollution at scale.

The plastics crisis is just one of many examples of how harms to our environment and harms to animals overlap and require a broader intersectional approach. The Global Law Alliance for Animals and the Environment (the “Global Law Alliance”) was launched in 2020 as an innovative collaboration of the Center for Animal Law Studies and the Environmental Law Program at Lewis & Clark Law School to champion wild animals and wild spaces across the globe. Through the Global Law Alliance, we work to protect animals and the environment through the development, implementation, and enforcement of international law, while training students in this critically important area of law through clinical experience.

This year’s Earth Day is dedicated to raising awareness of the critical need for a global solution with the theme of Planet vs. Plastics, and a call for a 60% reduction of plastics production by 2040. Here is how you can help!

  • Share this blog on social media to raise awareness.
  • Support laws and policies at the local, state, federal, and international level to reduce plastics pollution.
  • Reduce the use of plastics in your daily life.
  • Come study with us! Clinical opportunities through the Global Law Alliance allow JD and Animal Law LLM students to work on cutting-edge legal issues and to develop the knowledge and expertise to protect wild animals and their habitats.
  • Donate to the Global Law Alliance to support our work.

 About the Author

Noted international wildlife and environmental lawyer and scholar, Clinical Professor Erica Lyman leads the Global Law Alliance. For over fifteen years, Professor Lyman has dedicated her practice, teaching, and scholarship to advancing wild animal protection throughout the world. She is recognized by peers as a leader in the field of international wildlife law, with a deep knowledge of international law and a history of creative, progressive thinking about using international legal opportunities for the benefit of wildlife and the environment.

The Center for Animal Law Studies (CALS) was founded in 2008 with a mission to educate the next generation of animal law advocates and advance animal protection through the law. With vision and bold risk-taking, CALS has since developed into a world-renowned animal law epicenter. CALS’ Alumni-in-Action from over 25 countries are making a difference for animals around the world. CALS is a nonprofit organization funded through donations and grants.