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Sunday, April 14, 2024

The Planet Desperately Needs That UN Plastics Treaty

This week in Uruguay, scientists, environmentalists, and government representatives—and, of course, lobbyists—are gathering to begin negotiations on a United Nations treaty on plastics. It’s only the start of talks, so we don’t know how they will shape up, but some of the bargaining chips on the table include production limits and phasing out particularly troublesome chemical components. A draft resolution released in March set the tone, acknowledging that “high and rapidly increasing levels of plastic pollution represent a serious environmental problem at a global scale, negatively impacting the environmental, social and economic dimensions of sustainable development.” 

Which is a bureaucratic way of saying that plastic pollution—both macroplastics like bags and bottles, and microplastics like fibers from synthetic clothing—is a planetary catastrophe of the highest order, and one that’s getting exponentially worse. Humanity is now churning out a trillion pounds of plastic a year, and that’ll double by 2045. Only 9 percent of all the plastic ever produced has been recycled—and currently the United States is recycling just 5 percent of its plastic waste. The rest of it is either chucked into landfills or burned, or escapes into the environment. Wealthy nations also have a nasty habit of exporting their plastic waste to economically developing nations, where the stuff is often burned in open pits, poisoning surrounding communities. Plastics are also a major contributor of carbon emissions—they're made of fossil fuels, after all.

Environmentalists and scientists who study pollution agree that the way to fix the plastic problem isn’t with more recycling, or with giant tubes that collect trash floating in the ocean, but by massively cutting its production. But while we don’t know what will eventually make it into the treaty—negotiations are expected to extend into 2024—don’t expect it to end the manufacturing of plastic the way a peace treaty would end a war. Instead, it could nudge humanity toward treating its debilitating addiction to polymers, by for instance targeting single-use plastics. “We're not going to have a world without plastic—that's not in the very foreseeable future,” says Deonie Allen, a plastics scientist at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. “However, the way we currently use it, that is a choice we can make today.” 

Think of the unmitigated flow of plastic into the environment as a stream. If you want to treat the problem downstream, you remove the waste that’s already in the environment, the way a beach cleanup does. Farther upstream—literally so—you might deploy river barges to intercept plastic before it reaches the ocean. But the farthest upstream you can go is just not producing the plastic in the first place. 

That’s why the treaty needs to include a limit on plastics production, an international team of scientists argued in the journal Science after the draft resolution was published. “What we're really going to be pushing for is for mandatory and obligatory caps on production,” says Jane Patton, campaign manager of plastics and petrochemicals at the Center for International Environmental Law, who’s attending the talks. “We're going to be pushing for changes in the way the plastics are produced, to eliminate toxic chemicals from the production and the supply chain.”

The draft resolution does indeed call for addressing the “full lifecycle” of plastic, meaning from production to disposal. But time will tell how successful negotiators will actually be in getting agreement on a cap. Ideally they’d agree to an internationally binding limit, but it’s also possible that individual countries will end up making their own commitments. 

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Even starting with a small cap might lay the groundwork for increasingly hefty limits. Melanie Bergmann, a microplastics researcher at the Alfred Wegener Institute who coauthored the piece in Science, says that a decreased plastics supply could finally make recycling more sustainable. “A reduction in the production of new plastics should also increase the price and demand for recycled plastic, so recycling becomes actually economic,” says Bergmann, who is attending the talks. “Because, at the moment, it is cheaper to make plastic from fossil feedstock than from recycled sources.”

Still other scientists are calling for the component chemicals in plastics to be central to the talks, in order to negotiate bans on certain compounds, or particularly toxic polymers. According to one study, of the 10,000-plus different chemicals that have been used in various forms of plastics—like PVC or polystyrene—a quarter are substances of concern, meaning they’re known toxicants, or accumulate and persist in organisms and the environment. Of particular alarm for humans are endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, which are quite common. Even in very low doses, these can cause severe health issues and have been linked to cancers and hormone problems. One study earlier this year linked phthalate chemicals in plastics to 100,000 early deaths a year in the US, and that was a very conservative estimate.

The core of the issue is that plastics companies don’t provide an ingredient list for their products, so it’s up to chemists to essentially reverse engineer the stuff to find out what’s in it. “We don't know what chemicals are in there, and we don't know what changes happen to those chemicals once they get into the environment,” says Steve Allen, a plastics scientist at the Ocean Frontier Institute and coauthor of a new paper in Science arguing for negotiators to consider the chemical composition of plastics. One previous study found that when exposed to sunlight, plastic spits out thousands of new chemical compounds. “So to remove them from the discussion,” Allen adds, “is removing the biggest hazardous part of this material.”

People are constantly exposed to EDCs both because plastics make contact with our water and food (including infant formula warmed in plastic bottles) and because of the other scourge the draft resolution promises to address: microplastics. These tiny particles have thoroughly saturated the oceans and are blowing thousands of miles through the atmosphere: One study estimated that the equivalent of billions of plastic bottles falls out of the sky across the US annually. Indoor air in particular is lousy with the floating particles, because virtually everything around us is made of plastic or is coated with it: carpets, hardwood floors, and even our clothes, of which two-thirds are now made of plastic. With people inhaling hundreds of thousands of these particles a year, and eating and drinking still more, it’s no surprise that scientists are finding microplastics in human lung tissuebloodplacentas, and even babies’ first stools—meaning children are exposed to the particles before they’re even born. 

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That’s what has changed in the discourse around plastic in recent years, and what will certainly color the negotiations this week. Plastic pollution is no longer this thing that happens to beaches, or to sea turtles, but something that has tainted our own bodies. “Going beyond the understanding of plastic waste as merely a problem of litter, we are starting to see the importance of understanding plastics as materials made of hundreds of harmful chemicals,” says Vito Buonsante, technical and policy adviser at the International Pollutants Elimination Network, who’s attending the talks.

Stopping microplastic pollution, though, will be monumentally difficult, because the plastic industry’s great coup has been injecting its product into every aspect of our lives and civilization. In addition to obvious sources, like the breakdown of bottles into ever-smaller particles, it’s hidden in objects like paint chips, cigarette butts, and the particles that fly off from a car’s tires. (Synthetic rubber is technically plastic.)

Scientists already have evidence that microplastics are harming organisms and ecosystems. In Washington state, the chemical 6PPD from tire microplastics has been killing salmon en masse, when the particles wash off roads and into streams. A follow-up study found that the chemical does the same to rainbow trout and brook trout. A growing body of other research is showing that microplastics are harming or killing small ocean creatures like crustaceans. And that’s in the doses currently in the environment—the toxicological burden will only get worse if plastics production continues unabated.

The conference, which lasts until Friday, will allow delegates from around 150 countries to set the framework for negotiations, which are expected to last for the next two years. That includes figuring out what exactly would be legally binding in the resulting treaty—for instance, a potential cap on production—and sketching out rules of procedure going forward. 

It’s very early days, so don’t expect documents to be finalized soon. But there’s a dire urgency in getting this treaty moving, not just for human health, but for the health of every organism on this planet. “The scale of the problem is mind-boggling,” says Graham Forbes, Greenpeace’s plastics global project leader, who’s attending the talks. “Plastic is in our blood. It's in fetuses. It's really encroaching on every aspect of human existence. Plastic does have qualities that are useful in certain cases, but we need to reset our relationship to plastic, just full stop.”

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