A United Nations (UN) effort to put an end to global plastic pollution is badly needed, but is also at high risk of falling short of its goals amid debate over myriad complex issues, according to environmental advocates.
A paper published Thursday by Chatham House, an independent policy institute, and the Global Water Partnership (GWP), a coalition of thousands of water research and advocacy organizations around the world, warned that a global plastics treaty will face many hurdles, including required coordination and legislation among national governments.
“Many of the current efforts by national and local governments, industry, and civil society are still highly uncoordinated and often focus on downstream solutions,” the authors of the paper wrote. “They fail to address the source of plastic leakage.”
The UN committee on plastics was meeting in Paris this week to develop an international treaty that could include legally binding measures to be implemented in countries around the world. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which is hosting the talks, has outlined a goal of reducing plastic waste by 80% by 2040.
The meeting is the second of five set to take place as the UN committee draft a treaty it hopes all countries will agree to by the end of 2024.
“Without dramatic reductions in plastic production and eliminating toxic chemicals from plastics, we risk a significant global ecological disruption,” Charles Margulis, a spokesperson for the International Pollutants Elimination Network, said in a statement.
A growing issue
Plastic pollution is a growing issue worldwide. In 2019, 22 million tons of plastic escaped into the environment—a number expected to double by 2060 if no action is taken. Plastic pollution allows hazardous chemicals, such as phthalates and vinyl chloride, to leach into the environment, sometimes finding their way into drinking water and posing risks to human health in the form of cancers, reproductive issues, and developmental problems.
More than 3,000 of the 13,000 chemicals used in plastic production are considered hazardous to human health, according to UNEP.
The developing treaty must include restrictions on certain hazardous chemicals as well as bans on plastic products that are hard to recycle, according to a 55-nation coalition called the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution.
Many countries have also said the treaty should aim to improve waste management infrastructure, especially in developing countries. Two billion people currently lack access to waste collection and recycling services. Developing such services in countries that need them could cost hundreds of billions of dollars, however, which “highlights the need for international financial support” for the infrastructure, according to the GWP paper.
The paper said efforts to tackle plastic pollution are still highly uncoordinated, hampered by data gaps, and focused on downstream solutions, including clean-ups.
“It all comes down to markets and price,” said Patrick Schröder, a policy researcher at Chatham House and an author on the new paper. “Because single use plastics are so cheap to use, a lot of the other more sustainable options are still too expensive.”
A treaty that implements a global cap on plastic production would help to make sustainable materials more competitive, globally, he said.
The paper also warns that the treaty could result in an agreement similar to the 2016 Paris Agreement to fight climate change, by which countries are allowed to set their own emissions goals, called “nationally determined contributions.” If the new plastics treaty similarly allows countries to set their own plastics production goals, that “wouldn’t be ambitious enough, and it wouldn’t be effective,” said Schröder.
Debate over recycling
The new paper encourages the UN committee to create a treaty that follows policies already implemented in the EU, Japan, and Chile that promote a circular approach to plastics by aiming to reuse or recycle most or all plastic goods.
And the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty, which is made up of more than 100 corporations such as Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo., Nestlé, Unilever, and chemical manufacturer 3M, also is pushing the UN committee in that direction. The treaty should focus on strategies that makes sure “plastic never becomes waste or pollution, and the value of products and materials is retained in the economy,” according to Unilever.
But environmental advocates say calls for a focus on expanded recycling is a position driven by self-interested industries trying to protect continued plastics production.
“Corporations like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, and Unilever have worked with industry front groups to promote plastic recycling as the solution to plastic waste for decades,” Lisa Ramsden, a plastics campaigner for Greenpeace USA said in a statement. “But the data is clear: practically speaking, most plastic is just not recyclable. The real solution is to switch to systems of reuse and refill.”
A recent report from Greenpeace USA shows that relying on recycling as a primary solution still allows for releases of hazardous chemicals from plastic waste, and that recycling can actually increase the toxicity of plastics, since new chemicals are formed as plastics are heated in the recycling process.
“Since plastics are made with toxic chemicals, recycling plastic is recycling chemicals… The science directly contradicts strategies to resolve the plastics crisis through more recycling,” said Margulis.