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 Microplastics like fibers from synthetic clothing—is a planetary catastrophe of the highest order, and one that’s getting exponentially worse. The human race is producing a lot of a Trillions of pounds of plastic per 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% Its plastic waste. It is then either dumped in landfills, burned, or emitted into the environment. The bad habit of wealth nations is also to Exporting plastic waste from economically developed countriesThis is where the stuff is most often burned in open fields. poisoning surrounding communities. Plastics can also be used Major contributor to carbon dioxide 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. It could encourage humanity to tackle its dependency on polymers by, for example, focusing on single-use materials. “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.”
The unabated flow of plastic into our environment can be viewed as a stream. You can 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 oceans. However, Farthest The best thing you can do is not produce plastic upstream.
That’s why the treaty needs to include a limit on plastics production, an international team of scientists argued The journal Science 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. It will be interesting to see how successful the negotiators are at negotiating 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.
Even a small cap may be enough to set the stage for larger limits. Melanie Bergmann, a microplastics researcher from the Alfred Wegener Institute, co-authored the article. 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.”
There are many other scientists. They are calling For the discussion to take place, the components of plastics should be at the center. This will allow for negotiations on bans on some compounds or 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. Particularly concerning for humans is EDCs are endocrine-disrupting chemical substancesThese are very common. These can even cause severe side effects in low doses. Health issues These substances have been linked with hormone problems and cancers. One Study An earlier report linked phthalate chemicals in plastics and 100,000 premature deaths per year in the US. Extremely 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 Argument for negotiators addressing the chemical compositions of plastics One Previous study Plastic can produce thousands of new chemicals when exposed to sunlight. “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 The equivalent of Billions Every year, the US sees a drop in the number of plastic bottles. The floating particles in indoor air are particularly bad because almost everything we see is made from plastic or coated with it, including carpets and hardwood floors. Even our clothes, which make up two-thirds of the problem. Plastic now available. People inhaling Each year, these particles make up hundreds of thousands., and eating and drinking still more, it’s no surprise that scientists are finding microplastics in human lung tissue, Blood, placentasYou can even get it! babies’ first stools—meaning children are exposed to the particles before they’re even born.
That’s What has happened in the plastic debate in recent years? And what will definitely influence the negotiations this week. Plastic pollution isn’t just something that affects beaches and sea turtles; it has also affected our 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 made of plastic.
Scientists know that microplastics harm ecosystems and organisms. Washington State has found that the chemical 6PPD derived from microplastics in tires has been detected. killing salmon en masseWhen particles get washed into rivers and roads. A Follow-up study It was found that the chemical works the same way with rainbow trout and brook trout. A Growing Body This is Other Research Evidence is emerging that microplastics may be killing or causing harm to small ocean animals 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 will last until Friday and allow around 150 delegates to discuss the framework of negotiations. These are expected to last for 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 is even in the fetuses. It is threatening every aspect of our human existence. Although plastic does have some useful qualities in certain situations, we need to change our relationship with plastic. Stopping at the top.”