The world has a chance to end plastic pollution – the petrochemical giants shouldn’t spoil it | Steve Fletcher

LLast week, at a huge convention center in downtown Ottawa, I joined delegates negotiating the most important environmental deal since the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

The Global Plastics Convention has a mandate to agree a legally binding, international agreement to address plastic pollution throughout the entire life cycle of plastics, from the initial extraction of fossil fuels for plastic production to the disposal of plastic waste at the end of the lifespan. The current meeting is the fourth of five planned negotiations and is crucial – without agreement on the objectives, structure and key measures, the prospect of agreeing on the final treaty text by the end of 2024 seems ambitious.

It was Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, who compared the agreement to the Paris Accords – and she’s right. The need to tackle plastic pollution head-on is urgent because plastic pollution contributes to the three biggest global environmental crises of our time: the climate crisis, biodiversity loss and chronic pollution. The effects of plastic pollution on human health are becoming increasingly clear. Traces of plastic have been found in our blood and in the human placenta, brain and lung tissue. They are known to increase the risk of health problems including cancer, diabetes and neurodegenerative, cardiovascular and age-related diseases.

Plastic pollution is not just about plastic waste. Pollutants are released at all stages of the plastic life cycle, including extraction, production, use and disposal. So far, efforts to address this problem have mainly focused on the disposal phase, through end-of-life waste management techniques, including better waste collection systems and expanding recycling, incineration and landfill capacities.

But these approaches do not prevent the release of pollutants earlier in the life cycle, nor do they significantly reduce the climate impacts of plastics, the vast majority of which occurs before they become plastic waste. It is also clear that these systems cannot cope with the growing amounts of plastic production in the world. We cannot continue to rely on methods to tackle plastic pollution that we know don’t work.

Instead, we should focus our efforts on tackling plastic pollution at the source. There is now convincing evidence that there is only a reduction in primary plastic The production of polymers, or virgin plastic, will result in a substantial reduction in plastic pollution. This is recorded in a recent scientific article (in a journal I edit) in which the authors argue that reducing the production of virgin plastic is the fastest and most cost-effective way to reduce plastic pollution. To me and many others, this approach has compelling logic, because not creating so much plastic in the first place would eliminate the climate and biodiversity impacts of the ‘avoided’ plastic.

Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Program, and Canadian Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault, during the talks on April 23, 2024. Photo: Adrian Wyld/AP

However, the plastics economy is an enormously complex system: introducing new policies in one part of the system causes changes, sometimes unexpected, in others. For production cuts to work, a series of supportive interventions will most likely be needed. This could include banning products containing unnecessary plastics, as the UK government has done ban on wet wipes containing plastic. We could also rethink the design of products and packaging to make them reusable rather than single-use, or eliminate fossil fuel subsidies that benefit plastics, making plastic artificially cheap and falsely cost-effective.

Cutting plastic production would be a major policy change and brings us to the main obstacle: the lobbying power of the global plastics industry. Any mandatory reduction in primary polymer production would challenge very powerful forces. Countries whose economies depend on the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries reject the idea of ​​production cuts and are lobbying hard against a binding production reduction target in the treaty. In previous negotiations, this took the form of blocking and delaying tactics, shifting discussions to the procedural rules that dictate how decisions should be made, rather than focusing on substantive discussions on measures to tackle plastic pollution.

But now is the time for negotiators to push hard for cuts in virgin plastic production, and for the petrochemical industry to transparently disclose its production figures and the chemicals used in plastics. While there are many cases where plastic provides great value to society, such as in medical and food uses, these benefits should not come at the expense of current costs to people and the planet.

The clock is ticking, but there is still time to leave future generations the legacy of a healthy planet untouched by plastic waste.