The United Nations Plastics Treaty – A Global Agreement to End Plastic Pollution: What is it? Why is it Needed?
August 20, 2023
Since the dawn of the plastic age in the 1950s, plastics have become ubiquitous. They wrap our food. They are in our cars. They clothe our children. Plastics have supported some of the most significant advances of modern civilization in fields as diverse as construction, electronics, aerospace, sports and medicine. They have made our lives immeasurably more convenient.
But it has become increasingly clear that plastics have a dark side and that their benefits have come at great cost to human health, the environment and the economy. The negatives extend far beyond beach litter, entangled turtles and plastic-laden seabirds. Many are invisible. They are worsening.
To address the global plastics crisis, the United Nations Environment Assembly resolved in 2022 to develop a Global Plastics Treaty, a legally binding international agreement analogous to the Paris Climate Agreement. UN Member States are currently negotiating the Treaty. The goal is to complete the drafting of a legally binding agreement by the end of 2024.
To understand what this Treaty is and why it is needed, it is necessary to understand what plastic is and to consider the full life cycle of plastics.
Plastics are complex, carbon-based, manufactured chemical products. Over 98% are made from coal, oil and gas.
All plastics are comprised of a polymer matrix, combined with chemical additives. These additives, of which there are more than 10,000, impart properties to plastics such as color, flexibility, and water resistance. Many are highly toxic. They include carcinogens, neurotoxicants and endocrine disruptors. These chemicals leach out of polymers and enter the environment. They are responsible for many of plastics’ harms to human health and the earth’s ecosystems.
Plastic production is increasing exponentially, from under 2 million tons in 1950 to over 400 million tons today. Production is on track to double by 2040 and triple by 2060. Single-use plastics account for 35–40% of current production and are the most rapidly growing segment.
The life cycle of plastic has three phases: production, use and disposal.
In production, fossil carbon feedstocks, coal, gas and oil, are obtained through mining, drilling and fracking. These feedstocks are transported via ship, rail and pipeline and transformed in “cracking” plants into a vast array of consumer products.
Plastic use occurs in every aspect of modern life and results in widespread exposure to the chemicals in plastic.
Disposal involves landfilling, open burning, thermal conversion, and export from high-income to low-income countries. Plastic recycling is ineffective, with rates below 10% for all plastic and as low as 1–2% for single-use plastic. Plastic recycling rates are much lower than those for paper, glass and aluminum because different types of plastic cannot be comingled in recycling, and the thousands of toxic chemicals in plastic make recycled material unfit for many uses. Despite rosy claims to the contrary, near-term improvement in plastic recycling rates appears unlikely.
Because plastic recycling is a failure and plastics are persistent in the environment, an estimated 22 million tons of plastic waste enters the environment each year and are added to the more than 6 trillion tons of that which now pollutes the planet.
Plastic production is highly energy-intensive, releasing nearly two gigatons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere each year, surpassing Brazil’s annual emissions contribution.
Plastic endangers human health and causes disease, disability and premature death at every stage of its life cycle. Workers who extract coal, oil and gas, plastic production workers, plastic textile workers and plastic recycling workers are all exposed to air pollutants and to multiple toxic chemicals. They suffer increased rates of cardiovascular, pulmonary, metabolic and neurologic diseases, and cancer.
During use and disposal, plastics release microplastic particles along with toxic chemicals. These chemicals disrupt endocrine function and increase risk for premature births, neurodevelopmental disorders, male reproductive birth defects, infertility, obesity, cardiovascular disease, renal disease and cancer. National biomonitoring surveys document population-wide exposures to these chemicals.
The contribution of plastics to global climate change further endanger human health.
Infants and young children are uniquely vulnerable to plastics. Infants in the womb are exposed to plastics chemicals absorbed by their mothers. Prenatal exposures are linked to miscarriages, premature births, stillbirth, low birth weight, birth defects of the reproductive organs, neurodevelopmental impairment, impaired lung growth and childhood cancer. Early-life exposures to plastic chemicals increase risk of heart disease, Type-2 diabetes and obesity in childhood and across the life span.
Because plastic manufacturing causes disease and death, it is responsible for economic losses. These losses fall into two categories: healthcare expenditures and reductions in overall productivity.
In 2015, the health-related costs of plastic production exceeded $250 billion globally – more than the GDP of New Zealand or Finland. These include: costs of occupational injuries; costs of diseases caused by air pollution, benzene, formaldehyde and other toxic materials; and the costs associated with the contribution of plastics to climate change.
We cannot use lack of complete knowledge about the harms caused by plastics as an excuse for inaction.
Disease, disability and death caused by three plastic-associated chemicals, PBDE (a flame retardant), BPA (a monomer) and DEHP (a plasticizer), are responsible for additional health costs. PBDE and phthalates cause IQ loss in children following prenatal exposure. IQ loss causes economic losses by reducing lifelong productivity. DEHP causes premature deaths from stroke and cardiovascular disease. In the USA alone, the annual costs of disease caused by PBDE, BPA and DEHP exceed $920 billion.
The harms caused by plastics are not fairly distributed. Groups at disproportionately high risk are people of color, Indigenous populations, fossil fuel extraction workers, chemical and plastic production workers, informal waste and recovery workers, and persons living in “fenceline” communities adjacent to plastic production and plastic waste facilities. These groups have increased risks of premature birth, low birth weight, asthma, leukemia, cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer.
The UN has formed an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to develop the Global Plastics Treaty. This Committee has already met twice: in Punta del Este, Uruguay, from 28 November to 2 December 2022, and in Paris, France from 29 May to 2 June 2023. A third meeting is scheduled for November 2023 in Nairobi, Kenya.
There is much about plastic and its hazards that we still do not know, and more research is needed. But we already know very clearly that plastics’ harms to human health and the global environment are extremely serious. And we know that in the absence of urgent intervention, these harms will get much worse.
We know enough to act. We cannot use lack of complete knowledge about the harms caused by plastics as an excuse for inaction. The manufacture and use of essential plastics may continue. But reckless increases in plastic production, and especially increases in the manufacture of an ever-increasing array of unnecessary single-use plastic products, must be curbed. This is why we need a Global Plastics Treaty.
Andreas Bummel | October 9, 2023