A Mixed Reception at Talks on an Anti-Pollution Plastic Treaty

A new report shows that plastic chemicals are more numerous and hazardous than previously thought. Plastics may contain any mix of more than 16,000 different chemicals, and at least 4,200 (or 26%) of these are highly hazardous to human and environmental health, according to an international team of scientists with the PlastChem Project. More than 400 hazardous chemicals of concern were found present in each major plastic type tested, including food packaging, and all tested plastics contained hazardous chemicals that can leach into food, homes, the environment, and human bodies.

The term “plastic chemicals” encompasses all chemicals detectable in plastics, including additives, processing aids, and impurities. A previous report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and other international institutions identified 13,000 plastic chemicals. The new PlastChem Report shows that there are more plastic chemicals than previously known, with more than 16,000 chemicals included in the newly launched PlastChem database, which accompanies the report.

This report is unique. It’s a systematic, comprehensive approach to understanding the chemical dimension of plastics, and it offers robust, science-based and future-proof options for responding to this challenge.

— Dr. Jane Muncke, PlastChem co-author and Managing Director at the Food Packaging Forum

To date, information about the chemicals in plastics has been kept largely proprietary by the plastics industry. Experts have had to carefully test plastics to determine which chemicals they contain. The PlastChem project aims to address the fragmented understanding of the chemicals in plastics and their impact on health and the environment. This initiative has created a high-quality, comprehensive state-of-the-science report synthesizing the evidence about chemicals in plastics to inform an evidence-based policy development for better protecting public health and the environment. Objectives of the PlastChem Project include:

  • Compiling a thorough overview of all known plastic chemicals.
  • Identifying plastic chemicals of concern and linking them to specific polymers.
  • Prioritizing plastic chemicals based on hazard, and other scientific, regulatory, and market data.
  • Synthesizing scientific evidence to guide informed policy development.

The existence of the PlastChem Project is especially important as countries are currently negotiating a Global Plastics Treaty to end plastic pollution. A strong treaty must not only require a rapid reduction in plastic production, but it also must address plastic chemicals. Experts with the PlastChem Project stress the need to find new and improved ways to regulate plastic chemicals, including hazard-based identification of groups of plastic chemicals of concern.

Governments across the globe want to tackle the plastics problem. However, this can only be achieved if problematic plastic chemicals are properly dealt with. The report provides the much-needed scientific evidence to make plastics safer for the environment and for us humans.

— Prof. Martin Wagner, coordinator of the PlastChem Project, lead author of the report, and Professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) Trondheim

Take Action

Tell U.S. representatives and world leaders to support a strong, binding UN Plastics Treaty that ends plastic pollution and injustice, and mandates strict and precautionary regulation of plastic chemicals. Join the movement to advocate for real solutions!

Health problems linked with harmful plastic chemicals cost the U.S. health care system $250 billion in increased costs in the year 2018 alone, according to a study published today. This cost is equal to 1.22% of the nation’s annual gross domestic product (GDP).

The United States has historically considered plastics and their chemical ingredients as a point of economic productivity. Yet this new study reveals that the health care costs of treating illnesses that trace back to plastic chemicals are extremely steep—and experts say plastic’s health costs will only increase if industries are permitted to continue pumping out plastics into the world.

Our study drives home the need to address chemicals used in plastic materials as part of the Global Plastics Treaty. Actions through the Global Plastics Treaty and other policy initiatives will reduce these costs in proportion to the actual reductions in chemical exposures achieved.

— Leonardo Trasande, M.D., M.P.P., of NYU Grossman School of Medicine and NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service in New York, N.Y., and Plastic Pollution Coalition Scientific Advisor

Plastics contain more than 16,000 chemicals, including many that interrupt how our bodies’ hormone (endocrine) systems work. These chemicals can cause serious health problems including cancer, diabetes, reproductive disorders, neurological impairments of developing fetuses and children, and even death. Some of the most harmful plastic chemicals include bisphenols, phthalates, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE), and poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Babies, children, and pregnant people are especially vulnerable to these chemicals.

Plastics pollute throughout their endless, toxic existence. The plastics and petrochemical industries also heavily pollute the air, soils, and waters during fossil fuel extraction and processing, plastics production, as well as transportation and “disposal” of plastic in landfills, incinerators, and the environment. Poor, rural, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities have been disproportionately polluted by these industries, driving major social injustices and public health crises.

Plastic pollution impacts everything, and hurts our health and the health of our planet. As evidence of plastic pollution’s harmful effects grows, it’s clear plastic’s costs far outweigh any perceived economic benefits. We don’t have time to continue with business as usual, it’s time to shift the system.

— Dianna Cohen, CEO and Co-Founder, Plastic Pollution Coalition

New Documentary on Plastics + Health to Debut at SXSW

Image credit: @PlasticPeopleDoc

Plastic People, a new film that will debut at this year’s SXSW Film & TV Festival this March in Austin, Texas, sheds important light on the health consequences and costs of plastics. The UN Plastics Treaty, now under negotiation, is an opportunity to more effectively regulate the plastics and petrochemical industries. An effective Plastics Treaty should address the impacts of plastic pollution across its lifecycle, and bind industries to phasing out toxic plastics and chemicals.

How to Protect Yourself

Loose fruit and vegetables in market, no plastic wrappers.

Scientists have been increasingly finding plastic particles and chemicals in our environment, food, water, and our bodies. As evidence of plastic’s harmful effects on human health grows, so does the urgency of taking action to end production of toxic plastics and their chemical additives.

The news of microplastic and nanoplastic particles getting into our bodies from food, water and other beverages, and the air when we breathe, is concerning. Despite plastic’s ubiquity in our lives, there are ways you can help reduce your exposure. Learn tangible, common sense ways to reduce the amount of plastic you use in your daily life during our January 18 webinar: Plastic-Free Resolutions: Protecting Your Health in 2024. Sign up.

Avoid bottled water and other beverages sold in plastic, which can release hundreds of thousands of plastic particles into your body. Instead consider installing a point-of-use water filter on your tap that can catch microplastics and many of the chemicals commonly used in plastics. When choosing foods, opt for those that are the least processed, and are either unpackaged or are stored in materials other than plastic, such as untreated paper or banana leaves.

Take Action

We need urgent action to end plastic pollution on a global scale. We must convince government leaders to take a strong stance and support a bold, binding global plastics treaty that addresses the full life cycle of plastics. You can help by signing petitions to the U.S. Government and world leaders, and by amplifying the voices of people on the frontlines of the crisis.

3

Despite pledging to reduce their use of plastics, businesses and governments are failing to meet goals to cut plastic pollution. This, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s latest Global Commitment Report, which assesses the integrity of commitments to reduce plastic pollution that were made by 123 businesses and 17 governments five years ago in 2018. 

Reacting to the new report, “The Global Commitment Five Years In: Perspective on Progress“:

This report emphasizes the glaring mismatch between business and government efforts to address plastic pollution and the real solutions that are urgently needed. Instead of making “commitments” that hide and greenwash false solutions to plastic pollution, including “chemical” or “advanced” recycling, waste exports, and the idea of “circular” use of plastics, we need just, equitable, and truly circular systems of reuse, refill, repair, share, and regeneration, along with the stopping of future plastics production. All plastic is pollution, and plastics quite literally poison the circular economy, not to mention our bodies and planet—from the moment plastics’ fossil fuel ingredients are extracted to plastics’ eventual disposal in the environment, incinerators, and landfills. The longer that companies and governments delay real solutions so that they can continue to profit from plastic pollution, the worse the impacts of plastic pollution will be on people and the planet. Plastic pollution is a planetary emergency for human health, social justice, the climate, the environment, and wildlife.

— Julia Cohen, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Plastic Pollution Coalition

Take Action

It’s clear that voluntary actions to end plastic pollution are failing to address the scale and timeline necessary to avoid the very worst outcomes for people and the planet. People living on the fencelines of the plastic and fossil fuel industries’ are already facing extreme hazards and injustices. The time for action is now: We need a legally binding, global agreement that requires governments and companies to actually make change. With the United Nations (UN) Global Plastics now being negotiated, we have the opportunity to create such an agreement.

The evidence is clear: Plastic pollution harms everything, and everyone. Make your voice heard, and tell world leaders we need a strong UN Plastics Treaty:

We also encourage you to put extra pressure on the government of the United States, the world’s biggest plastic-polluting nation, and exporter of plastic waste, to take a stronger stance on the UN Plastics Treaty:

5

November 1, 2023 , 12:00 pm 1:00 pm EDT

The process of developing a global agreement on plastics was initiated by the United Nations Environment Assembly in 2022, and negotiations are underway. The third meeting negotiating the outlines of an International Plastics Treaty will take place in Nairobi in mid-November.

Production of plastics has increased more than tenfold since 1970, faster than the growth rate of any other group of bulk materials. More than 400 million metric tons of plastic were produced in 2020, and by some estimates that number may double by 2040. The volume of current and planned plastics production poses a serious threat to public health and the environment across the globe. Many chemicals used in plastics have adverse human health effects.

In this webinar, Yvette Arellano of Fenceline Watch will share the organization’s work to protect communities in and near Houston, Texas, by reducing exposure to chemicals released during the plastics production cycle. Yvette will also highlight the disproportionate harms of plastic to environmental justice communities at the fenceline of plastics production facilities, and share reflections on what a successful plastics treaty would look like for these communities.

Sirine Rached of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) will examine how the lifecycle health impacts of plastics are addressed in the “Zero Draft” of the treaty, which will be the framework under discussion at the Nairobi meeting. She will also share perspectives on the recently released Nordic Council of Ministers report, Toward Ending Plastic Pollution in 2040.

This webinar will be moderated by Sharyle Patton, Director of the Biomonitoring Resource Center and member of the CHE Advisory Team.

It’s Climate Week in New York City, and thousands of people have come together to highlight the connections between plastics, fossil fuels, and the climate crisis. With hundreds of events planned around the United Nations (UN) General Assembly’s annual meeting on pressing global issues, it’s a busy week of climate-focused discussions and actions around NYC.

The week kicked off Sunday with the March to End Fossil Fuels, which was attended by at least an estimated 50,000 to 75,000 people, including Plastic Pollution Coalition Members, Youth Ambassadors, Staff, Notables, and other allies. At the March, groups and individuals mobilized to call on the U.S. and other governments, as well as corporations, investors, and other entities to stop prioritizing fossil fuel and plastic industry profits over people and the planet.

Understanding the Connections

Jackie Nuñez, Plastic Pollution Coalition Advocacy and Engagement Manager, attends the 2023 March to End Fossil Fuels in NYC on September 17, 2023.

Identifying—and acting on—the connections is important: As pollutants build up in the environment and our bodies, and the planet continues to warm, it is growing increasingly urgent to address the plastic pollution and the climate crises together. 

The facts are that:

  • Ninety-nine percent of all plastics are made from petrochemicals derived from fossil fuels—gas, oil, and coal. Plastics help drive the climate crisis. 
  • Despite the urgent need to cut our reliance on fossil fuels, the plastics and petrochemical industries plan to triple plastics production by 2060—threatening our chances of keeping global temperature rise below the critical 1.5-degree Celsius threshold. 
  • By 2050, plastic production and disposal could generate greenhouse-gas emissions equivalent to 615 coal plants annually and use up to 13% of Earth’s remaining carbon budget. 
  • Microplastics and nanoplastics may be interfering with the ocean’s ability to absorb and sequester carbon, Earth’s biggest natural carbon sink. 
  • Plastic pollution contributes to nine of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): 3, 6, 9, 11–15, and 17. Meeting these SDGs can support building a healthier, more just, and more sustainable world for all people.

Scientists, Indigenous knowledge holders, and other experts have emphasized that plastic pollution must be stopped at its source. This means implementing enforceable regulations that require industries dealing in fossil fuels, petrochemicals, and plastics to turn off their taps. A major (at least 75%) reduction of plastics production will help us avert the worst outcomes of the climate crisis, which has already caused significant and irreversible damage to Earth and human communities. 

Currently, more than 400 million metric tons of new plastic are produced globally each year, and that number is increasing year after year. More than 10 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced globally to date, and plastic production has increased by more than 18,300 percent in the last 65 years.

UN Plastics Treaty “Zero Draft” is Encouraging—But Misses the Mark on Plastics’ Climate Connections

The UN Environment Programme, which is Chair of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) on Plastic Pollution, released a Zero Draft for a UN Plastics Treaty on September 4, 2023. The UN’s Zero Draft importantly lays out the earliest structure and content for a Plastics Treaty to be shaped during the next three negotiating sessions, which are set to wrap up at the end of 2024, when a Treaty should be agreed. Activists and advocates working to end plastic pollution and protect human and environmental health say the UN Plastics Treaty “Zero Draft” is encouraging—but misses the mark on plastics’ climate connections and other concerns.

The clear connection between plastics, fossil fuels, and the climate crisis which threaten human and planetary health is one of the biggest critical components now lacking from the Zero Draft. This connection must be acknowledged in the UN Plastic Treaty, accompanied by a plan for addressing it. As mentioned earlier, solving the plastic pollution and climate crises can help the UN meet its SDGs.

The UN Plastics Treaty must focus on stopping plastic pollution at the source by seriously curbing fossil fuel and plastic production. It cannot leave opportunities for industry interests to continue driving the climate crisis and harming people and the planet.

— Jen Fela, Vice President, Programs & Communications, Plastic Pollution Coalition

With the third Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3) upcoming this November in Nairobi, Kenya, where parties will negotiate the Zero Draft, it’s important to understand what the document currently does and does not cover, what concerns need to be addressed, and why plastics and climate must be identified as urgent, interlinked planetary crises.

Understanding the Zero Draft

In May 2023, the UN outlined its suggested roadmap forward in drafting a Plastics Treaty in its May 2023 “Turning Off the Tap” report. Unfortunately, the low-ambition report focuses on “turning off the tap” in name only, as it problematically centers business-friendly false solutions allowing for plastic production to continue to ramp up. Instead of prioritizing the health of people and the planet by committing to ending plastic production, it continues to support profiting the harmful fossil fuel and plastics industries.

The Zero Draft does importantly identify a reduction of plastic production as a necessary aspect of the treaty. And it offers a few options for cutting back production, either by requiring countries to set mandatory reduction levels or by setting one global reduction target. Targeted reduction levels have not been established, but they could potentially be achieved by banning specific, easily avoided single-use plastic items and intentionally added microplastics (like microbeads), eliminating subsidies for producing plastic, and/or tapping into market-based options, such as a “plastic tax” that would disincentivize plastic production and use. 

Notably, the Zero Draft proposes the establishment of targets for “reuse, repair, repurposing, and refurbishment” of plastic products. While these tenets are necessary for minimizing wastefulness, it’s important that systems incentivize and support these tenets are built plastic-free. All plastic products shed tiny plastic particles that pollute the Earth, wildlife, plants, and our bodies and contain toxic chemicals that are linked to serious health impacts like cancer, immune system problems, and fertility and reproductive issues. Plastic-free materials, while they do still affect people and the planet, are less toxic and are far more reusable than plastics—reducing their total impacts. Overall, we need to build systems that meet local needs and support us having healthy lives and environments. Consumerism-based societies must consume far less.

Reflecting the interests of industries and industry representatives’ outsized presence at the treaty negotiations, recycling—including harmful “advanced recycling,” cleanup, and waste management are a focus of the Zero Draft. However, plastic is not designed to be recycled, and recycling plastic only magnifies and transfers toxic chemicals. It’s been widely recognized that such “downstream” solutions are not sufficient—and in fact they are a form of industry greenwashing that problematically puts the onus for dealing with plastic pollution on the public and perpetuates plastic production while delaying real solutions. The draft also fails address and attempt to rectify the longstanding injustices, pollution, and harm caused by the fossil fuel and plastic industries to people and the planet.

With an influential first step by recognizing in the zero draft the consideration of children and youth—the largest world population and one of the rights-holders group of the treaty process—the negotiating parties have now the power to define the treaty’s effectiveness to current and future generations. Is up to them to determine whether we will have a strong treaty, taking into consideration an intergenerational equity approach with respect to human rights, or whether the process will result in a weak text full of loopholes that will allow to perpetuate a compromised future with irreversible damage to human health, our wildlife and our ecosystem.

— Rafael Eudes, Zero Waste Alliance Brazil, BFFP Youth Ambassador (Brazil)

We must connect plastics, fossil fuels, and the climate crisis in order to move forward with solutions that can allow us to secure a livable future on Earth. The fossil fuel and plastic industries—and those who have supported and invested in these industries—must be held accountable for the harm they have caused. These industries are best replaced by local plastic-free systems of reuse, refill, repair, share, and regeneration. These new, healthier systems must be built in a just, equitable manner. The Earth must be remediated, and communities protected from pollution and injustice.

Take Action

During the second session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-2), which wrapped up in Paris, France, in June 2023, negotiators mandated creation of a Zero Draft, the earliest iterations of a legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution. As parties prepare to meet in Nairobi, Kenya, in November, it’s important to keep pushing for key concerns to be addressed, and for the UN Plastics Treaty to meet the needs of people and the planet. The Treaty is expected to be finalized by the end of 2024, and adopted in 2025.

Now is the time to push parties to take a strong stance on UN Plastics Treaty negotiations. 

Tell the U.S. Government: Take a Stronger Stance on the Global Plastics Treaty

Tell World Leaders We Need a Strong Global Plastics Treaty

1