Plastic pollution: Three problems that a global treaty could solve

In the journal Nature, journalist Tosin Thompson interviews experts making strong recommendations for the global Plastics Treaty addressing pollution, and recycling, social and health implications.

Sowing a Plastic Planet: How Microplastics in Agrochemicals Are Affecting Our Soils, Our Food, and Our Future exposes the growing use of microplastics in agrochemical products, the industry’s promotion of this practice, and its threats to human health and the environment. It concludes that, in the face of known risks and the significant probability that plastic-coated fertilizers and pesticides only add to existing harm from toxic chemicals and microplastic, their production and use should be banned.

In the journal Science, experts on plastic pollution come together to strongly recommend that the global Plastics Treaty “cover all issues of plastics chemicals as an inseparable part” of the plastic crisis. In their paper, they outline the complex chemistry of plastics, and advocate for redefinition of plastic additives as the toxic chemicals they are, and plastics themselves as complex chemical mixtures.

Manila — The Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, and Nestlé come in as the world’s top plastic polluters for five years running, according to Break Free From Plastic’s latest global brand audit report. The 2022 Brand Audit analyzes five years’ worth of citizen science trash-collection data, exposing how corporate voluntary commitments are not effectively reducing these companies’ devastating environmental impacts. In response, activists around the world are calling for a Global Plastics Treaty that can provide legally-binding mechanisms and enforcement policies to effectively reduce the amount of plastic both produced and used by corporations.  

Since 2018, global cleanups have been carried out by more than 200,000 volunteers in 87 countries and territories to identify the companies polluting the most places with the most plastic waste. Over all five years, more Coca-Cola Company branded items were collected than the next two top polluters combined. This year’s brand audits found more than 31,000 Coca-Cola branded products, doubling the proportion of Coca-Cola products found in 2018. These findings are revealed as the top polluter is serving as a sponsor of the UN climate change conference COP27 in Egypt. Given that 99% of plastic is made from fossil fuels, Coca-Cola’s role in COP27 baffles environmental activists.

Today, in response to corporate inaction, activists worldwide are commemorating a 5-year “Trashiversary” for these companies by mailing or delivering their own waste to them to demand urgent action. The actions are taking place today, targeting Coca-Cola in Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, the US, and Zambia; Unilever in Indonesia, the United Kingdom, and South Africa; and PepsiCo in India and Tanzania.

In 2018, the same year that Brand Audits efforts started, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the United Nations Environment Programme together launched the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment. This program centered on a set of voluntary commitments to address plastic pollution made by major fast-moving consumer goods companies, including most of the top plastic polluters. However, the Global Commitment 2022 Progress Report revealed that their 2025 targets will “almost certainly” not be met. For many of these companies, the use of plastic packaging has actually increased since joining the Global Commitment, exposing how voluntary actions are not leading to any kind of significant impact on plastic reduction. 

The Planetary Boundary framework states there are nine different measurable thresholds that human civilization should not cross in order to maintain the health of global systems. These include climate change, biodiversity, and novel chemicals, of which plastic is one. This report finds that the global scale of plastic pollution is affecting ecosystem health worldwide and is exacerbating other planetary boundaries.

The 2022 report of the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change is published as the world confronts profound and concurrent systemic shocks.

Countries and health systems continue to contend with the serious health, social, and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a persistent fossil fuel overdependence has pushed the world into global energy and cost-of-living crises. As these crises unfold, climate change escalates unabated. Its worsening impacts are increasingly affecting the foundations of human health and wellbeing, exacerbating the vulnerability of the world’s populations to concurrent health threats.

The authors determined that 80% of the 86 governments studied were subsidizing fossil fuels in 2019, providing a collective $400bn. Yet “governments have so far failed to provide the smaller sum of $100bn per year to help support climate action in lower income countries,” note the report’s authors.

The report identifies 15 biggest oil and gas companies as remain sharply at odds with ending the climate emergency, “regardless of their climate claims and commitments.”