A rapidly growing body of research shows plastic pollution accumulating around the planet at an alarming rate. Tiny bits known as microplastic result from the breakdown of larger items and have proven especially pervasive, turning up everywhere from oceans to rivers to soil, even hanging in the air we breathe.

As public awareness grows and concerns mount, cities, states and countries have been looking for ways to curb the release of plastic into the environment and to slow production of the material. Policies have ranged from bans on “single-use” plastics, such as grocery bags or straws, to rules requiring producers help pay for collecting and recycling their products.

The issue is also gaining traction at the international level. María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, president of the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly, singled it out as a key environmental concern she wants the body to address during her tenure, which began in September. She worked with several countries on launching a campaign in December to raise awareness and encourage phasing out single-use plastics, and has initiated a phase-out of such products at U.N. headquarters. Espinosa spoke with Scientific American in her office about the growing awareness of plastic pollution and the role she sees the U.N. playing in tackling it.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

You identified protecting the environment as one of the key priorities of your presidency, calling out plastic pollution particularly—why did you single out that issue? 

I think that the issue of single-use plastics is perhaps one of the defining factors of the current ocean pollution, but also, it's very much connected to human health and our food security. It is an issue that really is affecting now and today—not only the health of consumers, but also the livelihoods of the hundreds of thousands of people living from coastal resources.

Is plastic pollution a growing concern among member states?

Yes, definitely. When I launched the campaign, I teamed up with Norway, Antigua and Barbuda. Then I saw that more and more member states are paying attention to that, at different levels. At the international policy level (during the last U.N. Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, there were two resolutions that were passed: to fight plastic pollution, and to really address the use of single-use plastics), but there are also efforts at the national level. Today we have 127 countries that have passed legislation in the use of single-use plastic bags. So, I think that we are seeing a very strong response from the international community.

This is a collective action where you need to bring together civil society, academia, science and the private sector. At the same time, we want to really have the younger generations be very plastic-conscious when they have to take consumer decisions. We wanted to make sure that this wasn't seen as a technical scientific issue, but as a personal issue—as a personal choice. And also, we have teamed up with the private sector. The U.N. has launched an agreement [with plastics producers] to say, “Yes, we are going to make profound changes in the way we produce.” That agreement accounted for about 20 percent of the companies that produce single-use plastics.

So, there is a world movement, I would call it. But this world movement—I hope it bears fruit very soon. Otherwise we will be in deep trouble.

A number of scientists who study plastic pollution say curbing single-use plastics is a great place to start, but they’re concerned action will end there. Are there things the U.N. can do to help create more systemic change around plastic pollution?

We know that we are singling out one issue and creating awareness; this is not going to solve the entire ocean crisis, as we call it. It's a huge thing, but we have to start somewhere. We understand that this is one problem, and that it is interconnected to a broader production and consumption pattern. It has to also do with the efforts that the U.N. is doing, and the member states are doing, to combat poverty and inequality—because this has to be part of the equation as well. So, this is not an isolated environmental issue. After 25 years of experience in negotiations in the international arena, I can tell you that the only way to build a safer world—a sustainable world for the future—is about understanding holistically what the situation is. But one of the biggest challenges that we face here at the U.N. is to connect the science and the knowledge with the policy and the action.

There are still many gaps in our knowledge of the impacts of plastic pollution and the best ways to tackle it. Is there a role for the U.N. to play in terms of gathering the research that has been done, to show where gaps are and where research priorities need to be to focus the world’s efforts?

What I think honestly, and without being a scientist in the field, is that we need to put together all the evidence that we have already. And this should be perhaps a task of U.N. Environment: to team up perhaps with a body of authority on this issue—for example, the IUCN [the International Union for the Conservation of Nature]—to bring all the evidence together and come up with very concrete policy recommendations.

Last month, the Nordic countries called for a global agreement to tackle plastic pollution. Do you think there is appetite for that among member nations? And given that coordinated global action on climate change has been slow to materialize, are there ways to learn from that process to inform action on plastic?

On the plastics front, I think that there is very encouraging news. There are the two resolutions [passed by] the U.N. Environment Assembly, so this is an intergovernmental effort already. There are countries that are really thinking about an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, and I see that perhaps there is momentum for progress on that front. I know there are countries that are pushing for that, and as president of the General Assembly, I will be more than supportive. And perhaps this is going to be quicker than the climate negotiations.

I think it's not an easy issue, but it is something where we see that it can be done. And we have so many success stories, starting with the Caribbean initiatives to ban not only single-use plastics but Styrofoam, for example. And if they can do it, the European countries can do it, the other Latin American countries can do it. India is also undertaking a very, very ambitious plan to de-plastify their economy and their society. And when India does something, it has a global effect. So, I think that the commitment is there, the drive is there, and I think the momentum also is there to advancing something perhaps more concrete, more universal, more ambitious.

You’ve also been working to reduce the use of plastic in U.N. facilities. What changes have been made on that front?

Yes, I am personally pushing our own community to really have a U.N. single-use-plastic–free venue—and we really need to walk the talk. It is about going to a progressive process to de-plastify the U.N. I hope that when I leave my role as president of the General Assembly, we will see fundamental changes. We have had, in only seven months of my presidency, already, some very important gains: no more plastic straws at the U.N., and we are progressively getting rid of the single-use plastic bottles. We are having very rapid responses, and we are really changing our own culture. If the U.N. cannot be a single-use-plastic-free organization, then we are in deep trouble. And so, I'm pushing hard.