UN Global Plastics Treaty Negotiations (INC-3) Conclude in Nairobi

Yesterday, in Nairobi, Kenya, the United Nations (UN) concluded the third of five sessions of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3) to develop a global agreement to address plastic pollution. Delegates held their first negotiating session from November 28–December 2, 2022, in Punta Del Este, Uruguay; and the second session ran May 29–June 2, 2023. These talks follow the UN’s agreement on a mandate to negotiate a legally binding treaty addressing the full life cycle of plastics in March 2022. 

INC-3 concluded with some encouraging new developments, including substantive discussions and a greater recognition for participation by Indigenous and other non-Civil society groups (hereafter referred to as “third-sector” groups). But these occurred alongside some disappointing obstacles that continue to threaten the integrity of the agreement: Plastic, petrochemical, and fossil fuel industry presence and influences on the negotiations continues to be a primary concern. And while delegates dug into reading, substantially discussing, and developing the treaty’s initial starting document—the Zero Draft—during INC-3, UN Member states failed to reach an agreement on intersessional work to revise the draft ahead of INC-4.

Optimistic Start Slowed by Industry Obstacles

INC-3 kicked off on Monday, November 13, 2023, at United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) headquarters in Nairobi, with a welcome speech from Kenyan President William Ruto, who called on delegates to acknowledge the urgency of the interconnected plastic pollution and climate crises as negotiations began. Our Break Free From Plastic Movement allies attending the talks expressed optimism in seeing many countries—including many of those across the Africa Region (minus Egypt), Palau, Switzerland, Uruguay, and the United States—express willingness to begin working on the Zero Draft and called for substantive negotiations in contact groups as quickly as possible.

In addition to the UN delegates directly involved in negotiations, INC-3 attendees represented a range of observers, including frontline individuals and groups, scientists, NGOs, educators, and many other interested parties. As has been observed at INC-1 and INC-2, also present at INC-3 were many lobbyists representing the plastics, petrochemical, and fossil fuel industries. In fact, according to the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), at least 143 such lobbyists registered for INC-3, a 36% increase from INC-2. These industry representatives outnumber delegates from the 70 smallest UN Member States at the negotiating table, including representatives from Pacific Islands that are especially vulnerable to the consequences of the climate crisis.

Many third-sector groups and scientists have called attention to the fact that industry participation is contrary to negotiating an effective, binding UN Plastics Treaty since ultimately an effective plastic treaty would restrict production of both plastics and fossil fuels. Many stakeholders are now calling on the UNEP and the INC Secretariat to implement strong conflict of interest policies. During INC-3, this crucial matter was discussed during a stakeholder’s roundtable also attended by INC Executive Secretary Jyoti Mathur-Filipp. Yet, the panel reported that UNEP did not seem to express a strong commitment to further developing a conflict of interest policy.

Industry representatives continue to hold side events during UN Plastics Treaty negotiations, during which they have peddled false solutions to plastic pollution such as mechanical plastics recycling and “advanced” or “chemical” recycling, as well as plastic “credits” or “offsets,” in order to gain favor with negotiators and the public. Unfortunately, during INC-3, we saw the emergence of a low-ambition  “like-minded” group of historically fossil fuel–friendly nations that called for considerable changes to the Zero Draft that was started ahead of this session. What’s more, several allies reported that several such countries appeared to attempt to delay negotiations from making progress by focusing conversations on the false promise of “circularity of plastics,” and away from a necessary and significant reduction in plastic production.

Substantive Discussions Show Mixed Results

By the end of Day 2 of INC-3, substantive discussions of the Zero Draft were underway in three contact groups. The first group, facilitated by Germany and Palau, examined the objective, definitions, principles, and scope of the treaty, in addition to plastics and chemicals, and a wide range of approaches to addressing plastic and chemical pollution. Group two was led by Australia and Ghana, and focused on assessing financing and capacity building; as well as key aspects of international cooperation, such as treaty implementation, compliance, assessment, and monitoring. The third group, led by France and Indonesia, gathered elements for potential inclusion in the negotiations’ Synthesis Report and matters such as timelines and mandates for intersessional work. Intersessional work would assure the treaty will be as complete and robust as possible ahead of its final consideration in 2025. 

On a positive note, some progress on the treaty was made as delegates met in contact groups: Contact group one outlined some of the major objectives and elements of the treaty, considering countries’ proposals. Group 2 compiled the presented text and members reflected on the edits given the positions of the countries they represented. Group three flagged a need for intersessional work focused on addressing the safety of plastic polymers and chemicals. There is largely agreement that intersessional work is needed to make the treaty as robust as possible. However, there is some disagreement over the path to this work, especially because while some delegates show support for upstream measures to end plastic pollution, others are opting for the industry-friendly downstream approach. 

These discussions continued throughout INC-3 with mixed results, reflecting how industry influence continues to be a major challenge to be overcome. Some countries have disagreed over the potential inclusion of trade provisions, even though trade provisions are essential in regulating a material that is traded internationally and those products need to comply with any final agreement. What’s more, some countries proposed a national rather than global approach for binding treaty provisions, though binding rules are needed to significantly reduce plastic production. 

According to participants, much greater leadership is needed from major fossil fuel, petrochemical, and plastic-producing UN Member States, including the United States and the European Union. In the end, INC-3 delegates missed an opportunity to prepare ambitious intersessional work on priority areas, including establishing baselines, targets, and schedules for industries’ total reduction of plastic production, and structuring reporting mechanisms that could inform and monitor compliance of the global reduction targets.

Allies Amplify Real Solutions

In stark contrast to industry’s suggested false solutions to plastic pollution, delegates heard statements about the full toxic impacts of plastic pollution from people on the frontlines. Speakers included waste pickers as well as Indigenous peoples, environmental justice activists, industry workers and trade unions, and scientists who underscored plastic’s threats to people and the planet. Allies of the Break Free From Plastic Movement held a widely attended panel discussion on the need to prioritize reuse solutions in the plastics treaty—action that would help us to reduce wastefulness by reducing production of plastics. Indigenous peoples were also able to express the importance of Indigenous knowledge before the delegates, and received support from a few countries to be recognized as distinct partners in the negotiations.

Observers made loud and clear the importance of protecting the health and rights of humans and the Earth. Third-sector participants had high levels of representation at the talks as observers and during INC-3 side events. Youth were also present at INC-3, where they emphasized the need for real solutions, not false solutions, a non-negotiable reduction in plastic production, and an end to the unjust global waste trade. And they seemed to be heard: Some countries, especially those from Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and the Africa Region strongly showed their support for addressing plastic production, chemicals of concern, protecting human and environmental health and rights, recognizing the importance of Indigenous knowledge, and defining the path for a just transition. Yet, while third-sector representatives were better heard during INC-3 than at past INCs, and the influence of industry continues to skew the outcome of the treaty talks.

The UN compound is about 5 miles, as the crow flies, from the Dandora dump site, a massive heap of plastic and other wastes, some imported from other nations as part of the globalized, industrial waste trade. The site is the largest open dump site in Nairobi, and one of the largest in Africa. At Dandora many waste pickers work in dangerous conditions to make small amounts of money from salvageable materials. Delegates from Chile, Colombia, Germany, Norway, Pakistan, the United States, and Uruguay attended a side event organized by the International Alliance of Waste Pickers that advocated for the inclusion of waste pickers in the treaty and a just transition to healthier, better options for employment.

A waste picker stands in the Nairobi River collecting plastic from the Dandora dumpsite. Photo by Christy Gilmore, 2010

Take Action

INC-4 is set to convene in Ottowa, Canada, April 21–30, 2024, while INC-5 is planned to be held in Busan, Republic of Korea, from November 25–December 1, 2024. Ambassador Luis Vayas Valdiviezo (Ecuador) was confirmed as Chair for the remainder of the INC process.  Ahead of the last two INC sessions, we can see that challenges lie ahead in finalizing a strong, binding agreement to end plastic pollution. However, the opportunity to deliver one of the most significant global agreements in history remains on the table. It is critical now that UNEP and the INCs implement a strong conflict of interest policy and reevaluate how to address some countries’ intentional blocking the ambitions of the negotiation process. 

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.

1

Originally published March 26, 2019 by The Revelator

Article written by Erica Cirino

Update, May 2023: While this story was first published four years ago, its relevance and urgency has only increased along with increasing levels of plastic pollution on the planet, and detection of plastic particles in human bodies. In the time since, the United Nations has agreed on a mandate to negotiate a legally binding treaty addressing the full life cycle of plastics, from the extraction of its fossil fuel ingredients, to its production, use, and disposal. So far, at the first meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-1), we have seen some positive developments and acknowledgement of key plastics issues—such as the fact that continued production of plastics seriously threaten human health and rights, and dangerously pollute the Earth. But we face serious challenges in developing a Global Plastics Treaty, most notably the overwhelming presence and influence of the plastic and fossil fuel industries on negotiations. Experts agree the industries with a vested interest in producing plastic should not be involved in regulation of their own deadly industries. With the second session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-2) set to push forward the negotiations process in a few weeks, it’s the right time to remind ourselves of how industry influence has perpetuated the plastic pollution crisis and why “the fox doesn’t belong in the henhouse” in Global Plastics Treaty negotiations.

There’s plastic in seabirds, in the middle of the remote Pacific Ocean, even in people. It’s a challenge to turn to the news these days without reading or hearing the latest horror story about plastic pollution. These updates seem new and striking and scary, but in reality much of the fundamental information contained in these stories is actually far from fresh.

“In the last five years there has been more published research on plastics than in the previous 50 years,” says Marcus Eriksen, 5 Gyres Institute cofounder and research director, who’s a well-known contemporary documentarian of microplastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other parts of the oceans. “In the past the public did not get adequate information, or the right information, early enough to act.”

The Revelator took a deep dive into reams of historic plastic pollution research and uncovered that much of what’s considered “new” today has actually been known by scientists for decades but was not well publicized in the popular media until recently.

That delay in spreading the news about the threats of plastic came with a major cost. In the time since scientific research on plastic pollution was first published in the early 1970s, billions of metric tons of plastic waste has been tossed in landfills and accumulated in terrestrial and marine ecosystems — and in the bodies of countless people and animals.

That scientists knew plastic pollution was a growing problem back in the Seventies begs two essential questions: What would the world be like if we had listened to early researchers much earlier? And what prevented us from listening?

Initial Findings

The earliest peer-reviewed research on plastic pollution in the oceans was based in observation of how the materials were behaving in the environment.

One paper, published in the International Journal of Environmental Studies in 1972, identified the phenomenon of plastic consumer packaging washing up on isolated shorelines as an ecological concern. Written by University of Aston chemist Gerald Scott, the paper discussed the problematically slow biodegradation speed of plastic in the marine environment and outlined a “need for the acceleration of this process” to prevent further ecological harm.

That same year a scientist named Edward J. Carpenter, who now works as a professor at San Francisco State University, became the first to publish warnings about what would eventually be known as “microplastics.” While posted as a researcher at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Carpenter published two landmark 1972 papers describing “plastic particles” in the Sargasso Sea and plastic spheres used for plastic production (called nurdles) that had absorbed PCBs in waters off Southern New England and were found inside several fish caught there.

The decades following Carpenter’s initial work saw the publication of just a few dozen papers on marine plastic pollution. In fact, from the time Carpenter announced finding small plastic particles in the oceans, it took more than three decades for the scientific term “microplastic” to be published in major international publications. Today publication of these papers is much more frequent. A search of Google Scholar found 771 papers containing the words “microplastic” or “microplastics” published in 2018 alone.

Although plastic pollution wasn’t making news headlines decades ago, the research did continue, with several important early findings made. This includes the 1973 discovery of small plastic particles accumulating in the bodies of seabirds (today we know more than 90 percent of all seabirds have eaten plastic at some point in their lives) and the identification of large quantities of plastic floating on the Pacific Ocean between California and Japan (where we now know the Great Pacific Garbage Patch lies).

Plastic found in one dead seabird’s stomach. Photo: Carol Meteyer, USGS, NWHC

Early research suggests that scientists knew from the start that the biggest issue with plastic is that it never decomposes. It only breaks up into tiny pieces that can be ingested by marine wildlife and humans, with unclear — but almost certainly negative — consequences.

One major concern is toxins, which plastic can both absorb and leach out. While this issue has gotten significant amounts of media coverage in the past few years, some of the earliest plastic pollution researchers supposed that if ingested in small amounts, “consumed particles of plastic could release sufficient amounts of PCB’s to affect seabirds,” as Stephen I. Rothstein wrote in a 1973 paper on marine plastic pollution.

It took more than a decade after publication of the papers by Carpenter and other early researchers before the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the United States’ main ocean science agency, convened the world’s top marine scientists to discuss plastic pollution. In 1984 the agency hosted the First International Conference on Marine Debris. As former NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center deputy director Jim Coe later recalled, the goal of the conference was to discuss whether or not marine debris, specifically lost and abandoned fishing gear, “was a problem worth people’s attention.”

They quickly agreed that it was. Scientists at the conference concluded that plastic was accumulating in the natural environment and called for more research to better understand what seemed to be a growing problem. They also made the earliest call for legal action to prevent pollution from ships, which prompted Congress to fund an early version of NOAA’s Marine Debris Program called the Marine Entanglement and Research Program — which had a responsibility of facilitating research, publicizing data and minimizing the problem.

Plastic Industry Influence

During the early 1980s, plastic manufacturers continued to sell consumers on the utility of their products, specifically plastic bags, without publicly acknowledging that the materials were harming the environment. In fact, they tried to show the opposite by pushing ideas about plastic’s abilities to be reused and recycled.

“Plastic bags can be reused in more than 17 different ways, including as a wrap for frozen foods, a jogger’s wind breaker or a beach bag,” the industry-backed Plastic Grocery Sack Council told the Los Angeles Times in 1986. A New York Times story published a few years prior lightly debates whether or not consumers would prefer using plastic bags to paper, given the industry’s push to get them into grocery stores around the world — without mentioning any of the environmental consequences.

Photo: John Platt (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

But the real push for plastic started even earlier. Plastics-history expert Rebecca Altman recalls how a 1950s packaging magazine editor told industry insiders that “The future of plastics is in the trash can.” Altman, who has deeply explored the human connection to plastic, says that the world had to be conditioned to carelessly consume. Prior to that time, “it was not in the culture to use something once and throw it away.” Today the items most commonly found in nature are so-called “single-use” plastics.

Promoting public narratives about litter to focus on recycling as a solution has, for a long time, “been a way to deflect attention and responsibility for product design away from industry, and has been very effective,” says Eriksen.

Despite this focus on recycling, recent research finds just 9 percent of plastics ever made have been recycled, and the large majority has either ended up in landfills or the natural environment.

A Plastic Cover-up?

Though contemporary plastic pollution scientists say they are aware of these past studies and their significance, they claim the public is not — due to insufficient news coverage of the issue and industry campaigns designed to keep them in the dark.

“Industry has aggressively defended themselves, manipulating public perception, and attacking scientists perceived as a threat,” Eriksen says.

“For both papers in Science the Society of the Plastics Industry sent a representative (twice) to Woods Hole, basically to intimidate me,” claims Carpenter, the early plastics researcher. “I was not given tenure at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and I think the plastic papers hurt my career there.”

That trade group is now known as the Plastics Industry Association. When reached for comment, it refused to confirm or deny Carpenter’s claims.

But it’s well known that certain industries have covered up the link between tobacco use and cancer, and fossil fuel use and climate change. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists’ “Disinformation Playbook,” corporations have followed a specific pattern when attempting to block legislation and minimize their liability for problems created by their products. The plastics industry appears to have followed the same predictable plays as other deceptive businesses: blitzing scientists who speak out with “inconvenient” results or views, diverting attention from scientific recommendations (to cut plastic use), and making strong attempts to block unfavorable policies (banning or restricting plastic use), among other strategies.

Besides industry silencing of research and shaping consumers’ mindsets around waste, Altman suggests the media also played a part in the issue of global plastic pollution first being overlooked and then finally coming to the fore of global consciousness. It’s a combination of plastic pollution worsening and the nature of media changing over time, Altman says. Today social platforms have the ability for anyone, anywhere, to share what has been ignored long enough to become an enormous and visually compelling story. Just think of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and all the media attention that’s gotten in the past decade, she says.

“Culturally we focus on environmental problems of a spectacular nature, the kind of havoc that happens in a bewildering instant,” she says. “It’s hard to see the slow-moving disasters or tragedies that happen over time — the drip, drip, drip — until it’s of a disastrous proportion.”

Carpenter agrees, emphasizing the gap between the scientific discovery of plastic pollution in the oceans and publicity about the problem. “I believe that the Captain Moore TED Talk on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, plus Marcus Eriksen of 5 Gyres, plus a video on dying albatrosses at Midway Island, plus the graphic video of the sea turtle with the plastic straw up its nose began to finally wake up the public,” he says.

What’s the Solution?

Nonprofits like 5 Gyres are now pushing an agenda toward public awareness, corporate responsibility and the idea of a circular economy — an economy that focuses on keeping waste to a minimum while maximizing materials’ use. NGOs’ activism has also kick-started a spurt of municipal and national policies aimed at reducing use of plastic items worldwide in a bid to cut pollution. If people won’t stop using plastic items on their own accord, recent research suggests rules limiting their use of plastic items by charging a fee for its use or banning it outright is the best way to get them to stop.

The plastics industry has actively fought such legislation, and despite the publication of research calling for a reduction in plastic use it continues to sell its products while pushing recycling as the best method to reduce waste and litter. In one recent example, major beverage corporations led by the Coca-Cola Company sent a letter of opposition last year to the European Commission following the EU’s proposal to require that plastic bottles have tethered caps. Traditional bottle caps are commonly lost in the marine environment because they so easily separate from bottles. In the letter the corporations cite the efficacy of deposit return schemes and recycling in reducing plastic litter. They proposed increased efforts to “reinforce and incentivize [the] right consumer behaviors” in lieu of changing their product designs. Coca-Cola recently revealed that it produces 3 million metric tons of plastic packaging every year.

When asked about the issue of plastic pollution and how to best address it, the Plastics Industry Association sent a statement to The Revelator saying the association “believes uncollected plastics do not belong in the natural environment and that is why we partner with other associations, non-governmental organizations and intergovernmental authorities to coordinate efforts to strengthen recovery systems around the globe to prevent the loss of any plastics into the environment. Our members understand that our industry needs to be a part of the solution. We encourage education and call for the enhancement of our recycling infrastructure in order to encourage new end markets for plastics.”

But experts say product redesigns and infrastructure don’t solve the problem. “Ocean plastics are a symptom of poor upstream waste management, poor product design, as well as consumer littering behavior,” Eriksen says. “It’s a perpetuation of old narratives, where pollution is caused by consumers. Regulation of products and packaging must be fought for intensively.”

The quick solution to the problem: Use less plastic.

As Carpenter pointed out nearly five decades ago, the more plastic we make and use, the more will end up in the natural environment. As he wrote in 1972: “Increasing production of plastics, combined with present waste-disposal practices, will undoubtedly lead to increases in the concentration of these particles.”

That’s a message we should have listened to decades ago, which still needs to be heard today.

“The public did not get adequate information, or the right information, early enough to act,” says Eriksen. “Industry has been very effective at controlling the public narrative, but today they cannot control things the way they did in the past. Social media and mass communications have allowed people to organize.” And that’s starting to make a difference.

3

Toxic plastics, fossil fuels, and chemicals are often produced, transported, stored, and disposed of, just out of sight or in ways you might not notice. Past and recent train-related plastic and petrochemical accidents, including the recent freight train disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, have shed unfortunate but necessary light on the hazards of moving highly flammable and toxic materials by rail. 

Yet, railways are just one piece of the toxic trail of plastics, fossil fuels, and related chemicals that pollutes the planet and our bodies. These dangerous materials and substances are also frequently shipped by heavy-duty trucks, cargo ships, airplanes, pipelines, and other vessels, and are produced, stored, and disposed of in ways that constantly threaten the health and safety of people and the environment.

Transportation Arteries are Clogged By Toxic Plastics and Fossil Fuels

The tangled web of toxic transportation arteries is extensive globally. Serious accidents are unfortunately common, especially in the United States, where little regulation currently exists on how and where these dangerous substances and materials can be shipped, and what happens after an accident. 

Plastics, fossil fuels, and related chemicals are highly flammable and often volatile, especially when mixed, leaked, or ignited during transportation accidents. When released, these materials and substances are not easily contained. This can cause life-threatening fires, explosions, spills, leaks, and all manner of serious short- and long-term pollution. And, like all plastics and fossil fuel industry activities, movement of plastics and fossil fuels is also a serious contributor to the climate crisis

Last year, more than 1,000 freight railway accidents across the nation’s 140,000 miles of freight railroad tracks were logged with the U.S. Department of Transportation. About a third of those accidents involved trains carrying hazardous materials, including plastics, fossil fuels, and chemicals. Roadways, especially designated hazardous waste routes, are also commonly frequented by plastics, fossil fuels, and wastes related to their production and use. Last year, more than 23,000 incidents occurred on U.S. highways involving hazardous materials including plastics and fossil fuels—and this number appears to be increasing over time.

A smaller but still significant number of accidents occurred in 2022 involving air and water transportation of dangerous cargo, leading to dozens of immediate injuries and several fatalities. What’s more, at least 469 incidents involving natural gas and other hazardous liquid pipelines were recorded last year, causing three-dozen combined injuries and fatalities across the U.S. 

Plastics, Fossil Fuels, and Chemical Byproducts are Dangerous When Stored and Disposed

The industrial infrastructure that’s been built up to produce, store, and dispose of plastics, fossil fuels, and related chemicals, is another vast and dangerous part of this toxic trail. 

At the front of the plastics pipeline are fossil fuel extraction sites, such as oil and gas wells (including several hundred-thousand to millions of unplugged and abandoned wells in the U.S. alone), tar sands, and coal mines. There are also refineries where these fuels are processed into petrochemicals, and plastic production and manufacturing plants, with many of these substances stored hazardously above ground. Plastic consumer products are commonly stored in warehouses that pollute communities in various ways. Nearly 570,000 underground storage tanks for fossil fuels and other chemicals have been recorded as leaking around the country since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began monitoring in 1984.

At the other end of the plastics pipeline are facilities storing and disposing of plastic wastes—including landfills, incinerators, illegal dumps, and plants claiming to sort, recycle, or “chemical/advanced recycle” plastics, specifically those accepting hazardous wastes. Transport and transfer hubs, including those where plastics, fossil fuels, chemicals, and wastes are loaded to travel along the plastics pipeline, are often contaminated and are common sites for spills of plastic pellets (nurdles) and chemicals, and pose serious fire dangers.

There are also more than 740,000 industrial injection wells—among the most used and least expensive forms of hazardous chemical disposal—in the U.S., as counted by the EPA by 2018, the most recent year for which data is available. Despite being so widespread across the country, underground injection wells are notorious for being poorly regulated and unsafe, with a long history of science linking their existence and use to earthquakes, groundwater contamination, and other serious hazards.

People working or living along all portions of the plastics pipeline face numerous serious physical and emotional health risks linked to:

Toxic chemical and microplastic pollution (linked to serious cancer risks)

Noxious odors and noise and light pollution

Increased diesel truck and heavy vehicle traffic

Climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions

Heightened risk of fires and explosions

Groundwater and soil contamination from microplastics, fossil fuel, and chemical leachates

Exposure to radiation

Plastics and Fossil Fuels Drive Severe Environmental Injustice Along their Toxic Trails

People living in predominantly Black, Brown, Indigenous, rural, and low-income communities are particularly impacted by the toxic trail of plastics, fossil fuels, chemicals and wastes. These underserved populations are disproportionately forced to live in proximity to plastics and fossil fuel production, disposal, storage, and shipping along railroad tracks, highways, shipping ports, and pipeline routes. 

Sadly, underserved communities such as Mossville, and Diamond, Louisiana, have been, and continue to be, destroyed by pollution and subsequent buy-outs by plastic- and fossil fuel industries. The U.S. also continues to ship plastic waste to other countries, driving serious injustice overseas, particularly in the Global South. In addition, workers tasked with monitoring and managing hazardous substances are at high risk of toxic exposures and fatal accidents like explosions.

It’s not just people but also the Earth that suffers from industrial pollution and accidents, as well as every living being that calls this planet home. Water runs through the veins of living beings (including humans!), and through the veins of the planet, constantly moving through watersheds and weather systems. 

As many Indigenous peoples have long emphasized, without water, there would be no life. We are losing healthy, safe waters—and also losing our health and innate connection to the planet—more every day to this buildup of artificial transportation arteries carrying plastics and fossil fuels. Loss of clean water is an emergency in the U.S. and around the world. Now, not only are there plastics and chemicals contaminating Earth’s waterways, but these toxins are also found in human veins and bloodstreams

Stop the Toxic Trail of Plastics and Fossil Fuels

There is no safe way to produce, transport, store, or dispose of plastics, fossil fuels, related chemicals, and their wastes. These hazardous industrial activities and substances are directly tied to industries’ production of plastics and plastics’ petrochemical ingredients, and they create a toxic trail that poses a danger to people and the planet. Plastic pollution is a human health, social justice, environmental, climate, and wildlife issue, and a planetary crisis. People and communities across the world are finally waking up to the fact that plastic pollution impacts everything.

Solutions to plastic pollution exist. Together we can build a more just, equitable world free of plastic pollution! Learn more and take action.

1

Over the last several years, growing numbers of people have seen or heard the fact that traditional “mechanical” plastic recycling has epically failed: At most, only 9 percent of all plastic made since the mid-1900s has been sorted apart, shredded up, and melted down for reuse in new batches of plastic stuff, downcycled into other objects. Meanwhile, most plastic collected as “recycling” is actually landfilled, burned, or shipped to other nations and cause pollution, and is a major contributor to the climate crisis. Meanwhile, global production of plastics continues to climb, and is only expected to problematically rise in the future.

As a result of the increasing awareness around plastic recycling’s failure, the plastic and petrochemical industries—as well as consumer brands using huge amounts of plastic in their products—now face significant backlash. Corporate giants churning out plastic pollution, which decades ago answered the public outcry over plastic pollution with mechanical recycling and anti-litter campaigns, are working to counter society’s growing consciousness. 

This time around they are pitching “advanced recycling,” sometimes also called “chemical recycling,” to the public, media, and policymakers as a revamped strategy for coping with their rapidly accumulating plastic pollution. In reality, “advanced recycling” is just another harmful industry-driven false fix that delays and distracts from real solutions—most notably among them, turning off the plastic tap.

There’s Nothing Advanced About “Advanced Recycling”

Over the last decade, companies dealing in fossil fuels, petrochemicals, consumer goods, and plastics have launched or planned more than 120 “advanced recycling” operations worldwide, yet less than 10 percent are reportedly in operation. “Advanced recycling” facilities turn plastic waste into low-grade fossil fuels and petrochemicals (called “feedstock” in industry speak) by subjecting it to high heat, microwave radiation, pressure, and/or chemicals. 

Industries that support “advanced recycling” claim it is a “sustainable” and “circular” way to address plastic waste by turning it into substances that could be turned into plastic again. But the process is far from circular in practice: converting what yields from “advanced recycling” plastic would require significant input of extra chemicals, energy, and additives. The industry has no track record of reliably doing this. 

Most commonly, “advanced recycling” operations transform plastics into low-grade fuels that, just like freshly extracted gas or oil, release toxic pollution and greenhouse gases when burned for energy—and that’s when they produce anything at all. Currently, “advanced recycling” operations are predominantly small scale. The industry reportedly struggles with problems relating to sorting and cleaning mixed plastic waste, as some plastics like polyethylene (PET) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) appear to gunk up “advanced recycling” equipment.

“Advanced Recycling” Means More Pollution

As they did with mechanical recycling, industries and corporations are now painting “advanced recycling” as a “green,” “circular” panacea to the plastic crisis they created—despite plenty of recent truth-telling done by frontline groups, scientists, and the media about its true costs. While doing nothing to stop plastic production—the key cause of plastic pollution—“advanced recycling” operations cause serious harm to people and the environment in many ways, including by:

  • creating large amounts of air, soil, and water pollution through releases of toxic chemicals, such as benzene, dioxins, ethyl benzene, toluene, and xylenes, which can cause cancers (an alarming one in four lifetime risk of cancer from at least one “advanced recycling” process), nervous system damage, and harm to reproductive and developmental health
  • creating toxic waste products from “advanced recycling” that are not reliably tracked, tested, and logged for their harm to human and environmental health
  • being overwhelmingly sited for BIPOC, rural, and low-income communities, causing environmental injustice and dire public health disparities
  • relying upon continued production of plastic and exploitation of fossil fuels to exist
  • contributing to the climate crisis by demanding energy that releases greenhouse gases and creating products that continue to release greenhouse gases when they are subsequently used (most often burned as fuel)
  • requiring storage and release of hazardous chemicals on site
  • carrying risk of fires and explosions at facilities that could harm workers and communities, due to high heat and chemicals used as well as plastic waste stored

False Solutions Keep Industries in Business…at Our Expense

With waste incinerators increasingly under fire for pouring out streams of toxic ash, hazardous chemicals, and greenhouse gases in underserved communities, not “burning plastic for energy” is something that “advanced recycling” operators sometimes tout. However, “advanced recycling” operations require significant amounts of energy, the sources of which are predominantly fossil fuels. This continued reliance on fossil fuel exploitation and plastic production that “advanced recycling” relies upon deeply undermines global climate, environmental, and justice commitments. 

Just this year, the United Nations agreed on a mandate for a legally binding global plastics treaty that addresses plastics up and down the pipeline, and called plastics an urgent human rights issue. “Advanced recycling” should not be accepted as a solution to plastic pollution at a time when humanity’s uncontrolled release of manmade chemicals and materials—namely, petrochemical-derived plastic—has breached a threshold of both safety and accountability. 

If not for plastics, petrochemicals, and fossil fuels, “advanced recycling” would not exist. Allowing industries to continue exploiting and producing these substances is a major concern on a planet where leading scientists agree they must urgently stop doing so, or risk raising Earth’s temperature past a dangerous threshold within the next five years.

The only thing advanced about ‘advanced recycling’ is that it’s ‘advanced pollution’: a toxic transfer of pollution to pollutants.

Jackie Nuñez, Advocacy & Engagement Manager, Plastic Pollution Coalition, & Founder, The Last Plastic Straw 

Tell Your Representatives to Oppose “Advanced Recycling”

Earlier this year, citing scientific evidence, lawmakers urged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to continue regulating “advanced recycling” as big industrial and corporate investments in lobbying to promote “advanced recycling,” particularly by the American Chemistry Council, have so far proven alarmingly successful at persuading many policymakers to welcome these harmful technologies to their jurisdictions.

To date, more than 20 states have passed laws that reclassify these “advanced recycling” technologies as manufacturing rather than solid waste management. This reclassification ensures that these facilities are exempt from the Clean Air Act, so they can emit anything they want into the air. Such classification also makes it more likely for “advanced recycling” facilities to qualify for government subsidies and other financial incentives, and qualify for less stringent pollution permitting regulations than if they were considered solid waste facilities. In the US, the EPA currently regulates pollution created by these so called “advanced recycling” facilities as “municipal waste combustion units.” But the plastic industry is actively working at both the state and national level for bad policy bills allowing them to reclassify incinerators as “manufacturing or recycling,” which allows Big Plastic to sidestep the more stringent Clean Air Act requirements as well as excuses them from getting a Solid Waste Facility permit, under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

On a federal level, industry-friendly legislation, such as the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, further undermines real solutions to plastic pollution and the climate crisis instead of supporting local renewable, reusable, and regenerative projects that would help people and the planet. Policies are presently shaped in ways that maintain the fossil fuel status quo by enabling lethal industries to continue operating. 

Ensure your local representatives know the truths about “advanced recycling.” Share this article and show up to hearings prepared to speak out. Help center frontline voices by listening, supporting, and being present. Plastic never was and never will be disposable and neither are we. Together we can continue pushing forward real solutions to the plastic pollution crisis.

3

People often ask what really happens to their plastic recycling. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter where you set out your plastic for recycling collection, whether at the end of your driveway, at your local recycling center, or in a municipal recycling bin: Most plastic items collected as recycling are not actually recycled. Surprisingly, plastic is not designed to be recycled.

When you put used plastic (packaging, bottles, wraps, films, etc.) in a recycling bin (or trash bin), it is transferred into the hands of the global waste industry. This industry is made up of a wide network of businesses, governments, and individuals vying for a share of the nearly $500 billion that is generated annually in the global waste market. This trash trade has grown significantly over time, apace with plastics production and per capita waste generation, though recycling of plastic and other types of waste makes up a very small share of the market.

From a recycling bin, plastics are sent by rail or truck to waste-sorting facilities, also called materials recovery facilities (MRFs). Here, plastics are commonly sorted by like types (think films and bags, bottles, foams) and baled (squashed together into easily transportable space-saving cubes). Then it’s loaded back up on a train or truck, or a cargo ship, for the next leg of its journey.

1. Plastic “Recycling” Pollutes When Transported

The transportation of plastic—no matter how it is carried—contributes to plastic pollution, as plastics easily blow, roll, bounce, or are picked by animals like seagulls while they are on the move. This escaped plastic waste enters the environment and begins to break apart into plastic particles that enter our bodies when we eat, drink, and breathe. We’re exposed to even more pollution from the machines, vehicles, and fuels needed to power this constant transportation of plastic waste, which spew out hazardous particulate air pollution and climate-warming greenhouse gases.

2. Plastic “Recycling” Gets Shipped Away—But There is No “Away”

An enormous amount of plastics, labeled as “recycling,” have been historically shipped from the Global North to the Global South. Shipped plastic waste is rarely ever recycled upon reaching its destination. Instead, this waste colonialism more commonly involves waste haulers illegally dumping and open-burning plastics, shouldering the people who live near these dumping sites with major health risks and a degraded environment. People who earn incomes by picking wastes make the least from cheap plastics, and because of constant exposure to plastics in their line of work face elevated risks of cancers, infectious diseases (which cling to plastics), respiratory problems, and other serious health issues.

3. Plastic “Recycling” Ends Up in Landfills

Other plastics collected as recycling are simply landfilled or open-dumped (often illegally). Landfills and dumps emit climate-warming methane gas, attract insects and scavenging disease-carrying animals like rats and gulls, and leach toxic chemicals into surrounding soils and waters. They bring constant and loud truck and rail traffic to neighborhoods, release noxious diesel and waste fumes, and carry high risk of fires generated by landfill gases and highly flammable plastic waste.

4. Plastic “Recycling” Gets Burned

A growing amount of plastics are sent to incinerators, sometimes called “waste-to-energy” plants. These facilities burn plastics in huge ovens, to release toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases, while producing only meager amounts of electricity. Incineration also produces a constant stream of toxic ash that is hazardously stored in manmade ponds or is landfilled. Incinerator ash and emissions release toxic particulate matter and chemicals that increase people’s risk of cancers, respiratory illnesses, immune system problems, and other serious diseases. In the U.S., about 4.4 million people live within 3 miles of an incinerator, and 80 percent of those incinerators are located in BIPOC, low-income, and rural communities.

5. Plastics “Recycling” Means “Downcycling”

Even when some form of plastics recycling actually does happen, the term “recycling” is a misnomer. You may have noticed that many plastic items are imprinted with small numbers surrounded by three interlocking arrows. While many people associate those arrows and numbers with recycling, in reality they confer nothing about a plastic item’s actual potential to be recycled. Instead, the numbers are considered codes indicating what type of plastic an item is made from. These numbers in the chasing arrows give the public a false sense that all plastics are recyclable or may be recycled.

When collected, plastics marked with numbers 1 and 2 are more likely to be recycled—or rather, downcycled—which means making lower-quality plastic products from the “recycled” plastic. For example, number 1 plastic, polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, is a clear plastic used for many beverage bottles, and might get downcycled into things like fleece jackets and carpeting. Number 2 plastic is high-density polyethylene, or HDPE, which is an opaque plastic used to make more rigid plastic containers like milk jugs. HDPE is downcycled into things like plastic lumber and picnic tables. Sometimes plastic number 5, polypropylene, or PP, which is used for many medium-weight opaque plastic containers like yogurt pots and shampoo bottles is downcycled into things like plastic crates and playground equipment—but like most plastics, it is more often landfilled.

Even when plastic is recycled/downcycled, which is not the case for most plastic waste, manufacturers mix in a large portion of freshly made plastic or toxic additives to melted down plastic waste to restore some of its desirable properties. Plastics are not made to be recycled, and their quality diminishes with each attempt. Recycling is also expensive, and requires huge amounts of infrastructure, equipment, water, and energy. Meanwhile, the value of truly recycled plastics—that is, plastic turned back into plastic, which has always been low—has plummeted even further as (thankfully) new regulations are tightening up on waste colonialism and injustice.

6. “Chemical or Advanced Recycling” of Plastics Really Means Melting or Burning

The plastic industry and the petrochemical industry which provides plastics’ fossil fuel ingredients continue to attempt to control the narrative around plastics and recycling. In addition to pushing plastics recycling as they always have, these industries are now also marketing so-called advanced, or chemical, recycling (a fancy name for burning plastics). It involves melting down plastics into more basic petrochemical products—including fuels that are burned for energy and release climate-warming greenhouse gases. This is not recycling.

The plastic and petrochemical industries have also leaned heavily on the ideas that enzymes may be able to break down plastics (which is incorrect, as they only accelerate the break up of plastics into hazardous particles), and that there’s huge value in all the plastic waste piled up in landfills, communities, and the environment (there isn’t). 

Throughout history, these industries have spent fortunes launching nonprofits with names that sound environmentally conscious and a heavy stream of media, instructional materials, and ad campaigns extolling the virtues of their recycling strategies, then and now. When one considers the facts, plastics “recycling” stops looking like recycling at all.

Conclusion: Plastics “Recycling” is Greenwashing

In a world where many of us have been told by parents and teachers to recycle plastic as children, or learned from public service announcements, ads, and other kinds of media as young adults, this may come as a surprise or even a shock. How can an activity we’ve been told is right, actually be wrong?

Many activities, organizations, and products bear a green sheen without any substance behind it, or oversell their positive environmental impacts—this is “greenwashing.” It’s a prime business strategy for corporations making and selling plastic. Greenwashing can look like a vague label with words like “green,” “eco-friendly,” “bio-based,” “ocean-bound plastic,” or “certified plastic neutral” slapped onto plastic items or packaging, or can be representative of an entire process—like plastic recycling itself. The plastic and petrochemical industries are also co-opting language used to describe real solutions—like “zero-waste” and “circular”—inaccurately, for their benefit, mainly to perpetuate the myth that is plastics recycling.

Behind the scenes as they extol the virtues of recycling and advanced chemical recycling, plastic and petrochemical industry trade groups pour money and energy into lobbying for legislation designed to erode protections on human and environmental health. Their end goal is to facilitate increased production of plastics, and they are achieving this by perpetuating misinformation and driving widespread pollution and injustice for their financial gain.

The Real Solution to is to Turn Off the Plastic Tap

Image courtesy of artist Ben Von Wong.

Only 9 percent of the plastics made since they were first mass-produced in the mid-1900s have been recycled. The recycling rate in the US, the world’s biggest plastic-waste producer, is presently a mere five to six percent. But even if plastic recycling rates were higher, recycling alone could never come close to solving the serious and wide-ranging health, justice, socio-economic, and environmental crises caused by industries’ continued plastic production and plastic pollution, which go hand in hand. Production of plastic has only grown over time, and has presently hit a rate of more than 400 million metric tons per year, more than double the rate at which plastics were made just 20 years ago. This is clearly a much more rapid pace than at which plastic recycling actually occurs.

It’s clear recycling is not enough to solve the plastic pollution crisis. The fossil fuel industry, governments, and corporations really need to turn off the plastic tap. 

285