IPEN International Pollutants Elimination Network

After overshadowing climate talks, the myth of ‘circularity’ looms over the UN plastics treaty

gas flaring from an industrial facility

by Judith Enck and Pamela Miller

Judith Enck is a former EPA regional administrator, the president of Beyond Plastics, and sits on the faculty at Bennington College.

Pamela Miller is executive director and founder of the Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) and chair of the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN).

Delegates from 191 countries meet once again this month for the UN plastics treaty talks in Ottawa, and they need to avoid falling into industry traps that will hinder real progress. Dowchair and CEO Jim Fitterling’s recent Commentary in Fortune is a perfect example of how to ensure failure in Ottawa. If delegates commit to the priorities he outlined, they will fail to implement real solutions to the growing problem caused by his company and companies like it.

Mr. Fitterling suggests we should continue to invest in flawed systems that have failed to solve plastic pollution for decades rather than prioritizing what’s really needed to reverse this crisis: reducing plastic production and phasing out toxic chemicals.

World leaders have made similar mistakes in UN climate talks. When the latest climate talks concluded in December, stronger language calling for a phaseout of fossil fuels had been dropped, the agreement was not legally binding, and financial support for countries to move toward more renewable energy had not been addressed. Representatives of small island nations that are most at risk from rising seas said, “This process has failed us” and pointed to the “litany of loopholes” in the agreement, saying it would fail to help avoid climate catastrophe.

We can learn from that for the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution (INC) negotiations. Just like fossil fuel companies are promoting carbon capture technologies, which will allow them to keep pumping planet-warming gases into the atmosphere, the plastics industry is pushing the Biden administration to embrace the false solution of “chemical recycling”–either using high heat to turn plastic into small amounts of fuel or using toxic chemicals to attempt to make new plastics, generating massive amounts of hazardous waste. President Biden cannot let this happen.

We’re currently drowning in plastic, with global plastic production up to 450 million tons from its 2 million tons in 1950. Microplastics have been found everywhere, including in the most unexpected places: Arctic sea ice, the Mariana Trench, air in the remotest of mountains, rain in our national parks, and in human heart, blood, lungs, breast milk, and placentas. Unless new laws and a strong international treaty are adopted, plastic production is on track to double in the coming decades.

Instead of supporting cuts to plastic production, the U.S. has been mimicking the petrochemical and plastics industries’ talking points at the UN convenings, focusing on waste management and emphasizing failed plastics recycling and “circular” plastics–the same talking points in the Commentary from Dow’s Jim Fitterling.

The truth is that plastic recycling has been an abysmal failure, with a 5% to 6% recycling rate here in the U.S., and recycling does not address the health threats from plastic chemicals. Plastics are made with fossil fuels and chemicals, including thousands that are highly toxic with links tocancer, infertility, impacts on brain development, and other serious health conditions that are released during the recycling process, which spreads these toxic chemicals even further. That invalidates the very concept of safe and circular plastics.

The current U.S. position fails to prioritize chemicals, greenhouse gas emissions from plastics, or the need to significantly reduce plastic production. By contrast, other countries are forcefully addressing these concerns. More than 90 countries that allied as the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution warn about “the alarming acceleration of primary plastic production globally” and raise scientific concerns about the “adverse health impacts related to plastics [from exposures] to toxic chemicals.”

The High Ambition Coalition also calls for binding rules to “reduce the production and consumption” of plastics and “to eliminate and restrict unnecessary, avoidable, or problematic plastics, [including plastics’] chemical constituents.”

Chemicals in plastics have real-world consequences, especially for those communities living close to plastic production and disposal. According to a UNEP report, communities near plastics production sites in the U.S. face unequal health risks, while waste pickers and communities near dump sites in low- and middle-income countries experience increased rates of illnesses related to toxic exposures.

The Biden administration should not rely on anemic recycling efforts to address the global crisis caused by plastics. The treaty should require reductions in plastic production and the rapid phaseout of harmful plastic chemicals.

The U.S. still has a chance to lead in ending the threats from toxic plastics. To do so, it must put the nation’s and the world’s health above the demands of the plastics, fossil fuels, and chemical industries. For too long, they have had a negative influence on international climate negotiations, including last year’s COP28. Let’s not waste decades of valuable time and make the same mistake with the global plastics treaty.