Recycling won’t solve the plastic problem. Here’s what will.
There is no shortage of news about plastic’s ubiquity or its harms. Microplastics are in clouds, drinking water, playgrounds and our blood. Marine mammals are entangled in and ingest plastic at alarming rates. Plastic exacerbates climate change and biodiversity loss, and high-income countries increasingly consume and export used plastic to lower-income countries for disposal. The amount of plastic entering the marine environment is on track to double by 2024, and solutions, like plastic recycling and voluntary reduction efforts by businesses, have fallen short. These realities necessitate coordinated global action.
Fortunately, historic efforts are underway as countries gathered last week to discuss the Zero Draft — the starting point for a binding global plastics treaty. This meeting, held in Nairobi, Kenya, was the third of five sessions led by The International Negotiating Committee (INC) on Plastic Pollution, a United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) committee established to develop a legally binding instrument on plastic pollution by 2025.
Harm arises at all stages of plastic’s life, including design, production and consumption. The INC was, therefore, charged with developing a treaty that addresses the full life cycle of plastic, signaling a shift away from earlier international agreements that treated plastic pollution as simply a waste problem. In identifying 13 “elements” “broadly structured around the life cycle of plastic and plastic products,” the Zero Draft reflects this change.
While negotiators have yet to finalize the requirements for these 13 elements, the regulation of chemicals used in plastics – many of which are released throughout the lifecycle of plastic – will be critical to the ultimate success of the final treaty.
Most plastics are synthetic, made from one of seven petroleum-based polymers. Colorants, plasticizers, flame retardants and other additives give plastic its different properties. The variety of plastics on the market today directly reflects the numerous chemicals (more than 13,000) added to these polymers. Of these 13,000 chemicals, regulators have information for about half, many of which are considered “chemicals of potential concern.” These chemicals include persistent organic pollutants, PCBs, PFAS and other chemicals linked to cancers, genetic mutations, endocrine disruption and other harms.
Not only do these chemicals harm human health and the environment, but they also impact plastic’s recyclability. While in theory recycling seems like a promising solution to our plastic problem, in reality only 10 percent of plastic is recycled. This low number reflects the unique chemical composition of each plastic. Unlike glass or aluminum, which have the same chemical composition, plastics have thousands of polymers and chemicals, making recycling nearly impossible. There is also evidence that mechanical recycling – a plastic-to-plastic process – releases microplastics into the environment. Chemical or advanced recycling is equally problematic. Primarily used to convert plastic to fuel, chemical recycling has grabbed the attention of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which proposed a new rule to account for unsafe contaminants generated from plastic-based fuels.
As a final treaty takes shape, negotiators should take a cue from previous environmental treaties. The 2015 Paris accord, for example, ultimately allowed countries to reduce greenhouse emissions through voluntary pledges. Today, many countries are failing to meet the targets of that agreement. In contrast, the 1987 Montreal Protocol took a more aggressive approach and countries banned ozone-depleting chemicals. Years later, this treaty has succeeded in repairing the ozone layer.
Armed with this history and the growing research surrounding plastic chemicals and plastic recycling, negotiators should work towards mandatory commitments. An agreement that relies on voluntary commitments opens the door for the continued release of plastics and associated chemicals into the environment as countries pursue unworkable alternatives. Increases in plastic production – and the use of hazardous chemicals – will outpace any potential end-of-life solutions. The status quo is unsustainable and reliance on downstream possibilities will fall short; the “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for a global plastic treaty requires mandates grounded in science.
The pervasive and transboundary nature of plastic pollution necessitates a global plastic treaty in which countries act across the life cycle of plastic, as the Zero Draft suggests. Unfortunately, the INC-3 demonstrates that this will be easier said than done, as oil producing countries seemed to “hold the process hostage.”
When negotiations resume at INC-4 in April 2024, negotiators should avoid succumbing to the desires of the chemical and fossil fuel industry, whose presence at INC-3 increased by 36 percent from INC-2, according to one analysis.
Because the world needs a plastic treaty that works to eliminate upstream harms brought about by the petrochemicals found in plastic, protecting future negotiations from corporate lobbying influence is critical.
Sarah J. Morath is a professor of law and associate dean for international programs at Wake Forest University.
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