IPEN International Pollutants Elimination Network

On the Earth Day Agenda: A Global Plastics Treaty

To understand the global plastics treaty, it’s helpful to go back to the 2022 U.N. Environment Assembly meeting, where delegates agreed to write it. By then, plastics had long been considered an environmental scourge. The world was — and still is — producing more than 400 million metric tons of the material every year, almost entirely from fossil fuel feedstocks. Just five years prior, researchers had shown that 91 percent of the world’s plastics were not recycled due to high costs and technological barriers.

Agreeing to write some kind of treaty was seen as a big success, but the icing on the cake was the promise to address not only plastic litter, but “the full life cycle” of plastics. None of the details are even close to being finalized — but observers have called the treaty the “most significant” international environmental deal since 2015, when countries agreed to limit global warming under the Paris Agreement.

One of the key priorities for advocates is some kind of quantitative production limit. “If the goal is to end plastic pollution, it’ll be really hard to do without a cap on virgin plastic production,” said Douglas McCauley, an associate professor of ecosystem ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

ublic health has emerged as another major, and surprisingly popular, priority for the treaty. Even in the two short years since world leaders first agreed to broker a treaty, lots of new evidence has emerged to highlight the human and environmental health risks associated with plastics. Last month, scientists raised the number of chemicals known to be used in plastics from 13,000 to 16,000. More than 3,000 of these substances are known to have hazardous properties, while a much larger fraction — about 10,000 — have never been assessed for toxicity. According to one recent analysis from the nonprofit Endocrine Society, plastic-related health problems cost the U.S. $250 million per year.

As of last November, more than 130 countries supported incorporating human health into the treaty’s primary objective, and many explicitly said they wanted the agreement to somehow control problematic chemicals. This is currently reflected in the zero draft, in proposals to prioritize “chemicals and polymers of concern,” putting them first in line for bans and restrictions. Some substances that would likely be included on this list are polyvinyl chloride, or PVC — the plastic used to make water pipes and some toys — as well as endocrine-disrupting chemicals like phthalates, bisphenols, and PFAS.

Bjorn Beeler, general manager and international coordinator for the nonprofit International Pollutants Elimination Network, said that chemicals are the most “matured” part of the treaty.

Other sections, however — like the financial details of how countries will pay for the provisions of the agreement — have been largely unaddressed.

Read the full story from Grist.