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.

In “Circular Claims Fall Flat Again,” Greenpeace lays out five key reasons why plastic recycling has failed now and in the past, and shows how the world has reached a decision point on single-use plastics and packaging. The report demonstrates that attaining solutions-oriented alternatives, such as refill and reuse systems, is possible and serves communities and individuals much better than the status quo. Lastly, Greenpeace lists final recommendations for companies that seek to be a part of real solutions to plastic pollution.

Much of what you’ve heard about plastic pollution may be wrong. Instead of a great island of trash, the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made up of manmade debris spread over hundreds of miles of sea—more like a soup than a floating garbage dump. Recycling is more complicated than we were taught: less than nine percent of the plastic we create is reused, and the majority ends up in the ocean. And plastic pollution isn’t confined to the open ocean: it’s in much of the air we breathe and the food we eat.  

In Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the Plastic Crisis, journalist Erica Cirino brings readers on a globe-hopping journey to meet the scientists and activists telling the real story of the plastic crisis. From the deck of a plastic-hunting sailboat with a disabled engine, to the labs doing cutting-edge research on microplastics and the chemicals we ingest, Cirino paints a full picture of how plastic pollution is threatening wildlife and human health. Thicker Than Water reveals that the plastic crisis is also a tale of environmental injustice, as poorer nations take in a larger share of the world’s trash, and manufacturing chemicals threaten predominantly Black and low-income communities.  

There is some hope on the horizon, with new laws banning single-use items and technological innovations to replace plastic in our lives. But Cirino shows that we can only fix the problem if we face its full scope and begin to repair our throwaway culture. Thicker Than Water is an eloquent call to reexamine the systems churning out waves of plastic waste. 

Scientists share results of research measuring microplastic pollution from mechanical recycling facilities. They found that microplastic pollution escaped from recycling facilities with and without wastewater treatment. Microplastic particles are a toxic and serious source of plastic pollution that contaminates air, waters, soils, the atmosphere, and the ocean.

Mechanical recycling is not a solution to plastic pollution, as the industry has only managed to incorporate 9% of all plastic ever made globally into new plastic products (usually adding fresh plastic and petrochemicals), as plastic production has increased. Most plastic collected as recycling is actually incinerated, tipped in a landfill, or shipped overseas. Because so-called “advanced recycling” typically requires the same sorting, washing, and shredding processes as mechanical recycling, this study could also have relevance in evaluating the risks of the “advanced recycling” industry.

Greenwashing: the business practice of falsifying or overstating the green credentials of a product, service or brand. Greenwashing tricks us into believing change is happening, when in reality it’s not.

Greenwashing is increasingly widespread, and on this microsite you’ll find examples from fashion, plastics and food. Greenwash.com was created by the Changing Markets Foundation, a non-profit formed to accelerate and scale up solutions to sustainability challenges by leveraging the power of markets.

Fuelling Failure is the first report to highlight the dangers fossil fuels and plastic production pose to every single UN Sustainable Development Goal. The 17 SDGs, whose 169 targets aim to “end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all by 2030,” touch on a diverse range of issues and challenges such as biodiversity, work, health, inequality and food. The goals apply to all countries, rich and poor, with the aim of ensuring that “no one will be left behind.” In contrast, plastic reduction and zero waste strategies would help us meet the world’s SDG’s, fast.

The paper was produced by researchers at the University of Sussex on behalf of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative and key civil society partners with expertise across the SDGs: 350.org, ActionAid, REN21, Stand.earth, CAN South Asia, UNRISD, Food and Water, Rapid Transition Alliance, Leave It In the Ground Initiative, GAIA, CAN International, Center for Biological Diversity, Stamp Out Poverty, MOCICC, Power Shift Africa, WECAN and Asian Peoples’ Movement on Debt and Development.