Bass: Plastics, you and the global treaty


Susan Bass is the senior vice president of programs and operations at EARTHDAY.ORG. This was first published via American Forum.

This year Earth Day (April 22) marks the start of the fourth round of negotiations for a global plastics treaty. Without much public fanfare, delegates from 175 countries — together with hundreds of observers representing industry, academia, health organizations and environmental groups — will gather in Ottawa, Ontario, to chart the course for the future of plastics and plastic pollution.

The stakes could not be higher.

Plastics have been linked to serious health problems, including cancer, lung disease and birth defects. Recently, researchers found that individuals with heart disease that had microplastics, those tiny particles that pervade our environment, in their tissue had twice the risk of suffering a heart attack, stroke or death within three years. Babies, because of their increased exposure to plastics and vulnerability, are especially at risk.

Humans are not the only ones at risk: More than 1 million marine creatures are estimated to be killed by plastics in garbage each year. Eleven million metric tons of plastic waste are flowing into the ocean each year. The World Health Organization report, “Tobacco: Poisoning Our Planet,” describes the significant risks presented from the 4.5 trillion discarded cigarette butts. Cigarette filters, based on cellulose acetate, don’t degrade and continue harming the environment, as microplastics circulate in our marine and freshwater systems. They also release nicotine, heavy metals and other chemicals, which threaten not only coastal fishing communities but those who consume seafood products.

Moreover, plastics are irrefutably fueling the climate change crisis.

Over 90% of plastics are produced from fossil fuels, and 4% of total greenhouse gas emissions are generated in connection with the production, conversion and waste management of plastics. And plastics-related emissions are projected to more than double by 2060. With low-income groups and communities of color disproportionately located near petrochemical plants, as well as plastic production and waste incineration facilities, they are especially at risk for the harmful environmental and health impacts.

The scale of the problem is only expected to grow. Experts predict that global production of thermoplastics will increase to 445.25 million metric tons in 2025 and continue to increase by more than 30% by 2050. And, notwithstanding increasing government bans and regulation of single-use plastic, between 2019-21, there was an increase annually of 6.6 million tons per year in single-use plastic production.

Contrary to decades of industry promotion, recycling is not the answer to the plastics challenge. According to a comprehensive analysis and report by Greenpeace, even though the industry has been pushing recycling since the 1990s, “the vast majority of U.S. plastic waste is still not recyclable.” The report further observed a decline in the rate of recycling in the U.S. from a high of 9.5% in 2014 to 5%-6 % in 2021. Even new recycling technologies, such as chemical recycling, can produce toxic emissions and hazardous waste.

The global plastics treaty negotiations offer a chance to chart a sustainable course for our planet. We are at the crossroads of moving forward a treaty that will call for significant reductions not only in single-use plastics but in the overall amount of plastics produced, as well as demand full transparency in the industry.

So far, the prospects for a strong treaty are uncertain at best. While the member countries of the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution are pushing for the restriction and elimination of problematic plastics, as well as reporting and transparency provisions to ensure accountability through the value chain (the coalition’s ministerial statement), the so-called like-minded group representing many fossil fuel countries is advocating for a focus on waste management rather than production limits. And despite a letter from six senators and more than a dozen House of Representatives members calling on secretary of state Antony Blinken to negotiate “the strongest agreement possible,” including binding plastic production limits, the details of the potentially influential U.S. position remain undeclared — ironically, when the administration is touting its leadership in addressing climate change and promoting environmental justice.

To turn the political tide in Ottawa, we need to take a lesson from the first Earth Day, when grassroots activism in the form of 20 million people from all walks of life taking to the streets sparked the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the first generation of environmental laws. With a myriad of media and communication technologies and platforms available today to share your voice (#PlanetvsPlastics, #EndPlastics, #EarthDay, #GlobalPlasticsTreaty), it’s time to demand that our elected leaders forge a treaty that will free us and our planet from the scourge of plastic and plastic pollution.

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