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April 22, 2024

Global treaty should address impact of plastics from their inception, urges study

An employee uses a forklift to move bales of plastic bottles at the rPlanet Earth recycling plant in California
Studies show currently most plastic waste ends up in landfill, is incinerated or leaks into the environment, with recycling representing only a limited share (Photo: Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg)

Treaty negotiations should incorporate measures on primary polymer production, plastic as a commodity and the moment it enters the environment as a pollutant, say campaigners

As negotiations resume on a global plastics treaty, the non-profit Environmental Investigation Agency is calling for measures to address “head-on” the production of polymers. A core component of plastics, polymers can be more or less toxic, and can make it easier or more difficult to recycle a product at the end of its life.

To tackle plastic pollution, the EIA’s report focuses on supply-side measures as central to moving away from a linear economy for plastics. It argues that as the building blocks of plastics, polymers require dedicated measures in the treaty.

The report authors suggest the negotiations should include which polymers should be targeted for elimination due to their toxicity, how dangerous they are if leaked into the environment, and their recyclability. They also propose limits on those polymers taking up significant market share and that generate high amounts of waste.

By applying data from the OECD and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a US-based research institute, the report provides a framework to bring polymer production back to sustainable levels, aligned with a 1.5C pathway and the 2022 Kunming-Montreal global biodiversity framework.

Through modelling different scenarios in which polymer production is gradually limited and eliminated, the authors suggest potential approaches and outcomes to reduce plastic pollution.

In a business-as-usual scenario, annual polymer production increases between 189 and 267 per cent from 2025 onwards. As a result, between 17.5 and 21.6bn tonnes of plastics would be produced globally between 2025 and 2050.

In the most ambitious scenario — where the production of four commodity polymers is reduced by 75 per cent by 2050, combined with the elimination of three polymers of concern and a production freeze on others — the global production of plastics would be limited to 8.5bn tonnes between 2025 and 2050. Under this scenario, 8.3bn fewer tonnes of plastic waste would be generated, compared to the business-as-usual scenario.

Various studies indicate that the majority of plastic waste ends up in landfill, is incinerated or leaks into the environment, with recycling only taking up a limited share.

“Due to the limits on the number of times plastics can be effectively recycled, as well as availability of feedstocks, this makes things like binding recycled content targets, which are being discussed in the negotiations, a tricky endeavour and also potentially open to greenwash,” says Jacob Kean-Hammerson, ocean campaigner at the EIA.

He suggests the promotion of or increase in recycled plastics would need to be considered carefully alongside criteria for chemicals and polymers of concern to ensure that targets to increase recycled content do not perpetuate the recirculation of toxic chemicals.

You can read the full report here

A service from the Financial Times