There are an estimated 50-75 trillion plastic particles in the world’s oceans and an additional 8-10 million tonnes are added each year, with catastrophic impacts on wildlife and marine ecosystems. The damage caused to these ecosystems by plastic pollution results in economic losses estimated at between $500 and $2.5 trillion per year. But the costs don’t stop at the shore. Deloitte estimates that in North America alone, plastic pollution of rivers and streams costs up to $600 million a year.
The impacts don’t stop at the water’s edge either. Plastics contaminate commercially harvested fish and shellfish, fishmeal fed to animals, agricultural soils and food crops, tap and bottled water, and the air we breathe. An unfortunate but inevitable consequence of this ubiquitous pollution, plastics are also appearing in the human body: in our waste, our lungs, our blood, and even in the placenta of pregnant women. An unknown but potentially huge range of toxic chemicals can enter the human body via these plastics.
But the volume of toxins leaking from plastic products and particles is dwarfed by the pollutants released into the communities where plastics and petrochemicals are made and where plastics oil and gas feedstock is pumped from the ground. The risks associated with this widespread pollution are particularly acute for the communities that live along the fences of these facilities and on the front lines of the ongoing construction of plastics and petrochemical infrastructure.
This construction poses risks not only to the environment and human health, but also to the global climate. Because 99% of what goes into plastic is fossil fuels, plastics are essentially fossil fuels in another form. As demand for oil and gas in energy and transportation declines, fossil fuel producers are turning to plastics to continue profiting from fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency predicts that by 2050, more than half of oil and gas will be used to make plastics and petrochemicals. This has huge climate impacts. On our current trajectory, the production, use and disposal of plastic could emit 56 gigatonnes of CO2 by 2050, equivalent to 13% of all of Earth’s remaining carbon footprint that keeps warming below the critical threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius. These impacts would be compounded if plastic pollution disrupts natural carbon sinks in the ocean and soils. As a result, the plastics treaty is hailed as “the most important climate deal” since the Paris agreement.
The scale, scope and diversity of these impacts is why the negotiators of the new plastics treaty are mandated to address not just plastic waste, but the entire life cycle of plastics, including the production that drives the plastic pollution in all its forms, and why this mandate requires binding commitments, not just voluntary ones. Simply put, the world cannot recycle out of the plastics crisis.
Last month, Greenpeace documented that less than 5% of all plastics used and discarded in the United States each year are actually recycled. He found that for all but a small subset of plastic products, actual recycling rates are even lower. The Greenpeace survey proves once again that for most products and for most communities, plastic recycling is just a myth.
But the widespread belief in this myth is no accident. The plastics industry has long known that plastic recycling doesn’t work on a meaningful scale, but continues to promote it as a solution to the plastic crisis.
If this story sounds familiar, it should be.
Massachusetts was among the first states to launch an investigation into the oil industry’s role in accelerating the climate crisis. This investigation led the state to sue ExxonMobil for misleading the public and investors about the climate risks inherent in its fossil fuel products. In April, California launched a similar investigation into the role of plastic producers in the plastic crisis, beginning with a subpoena at Exxon, also a major plastic producer. A parallel investigation from Massachusetts could examine the impacts of industry greenwashing on the state, even as lawmakers advance efforts to address the plastic crisis nationally and locally.
But just as tackling climate change requires coordinated national and global action, so does tackling the plastic crisis. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey co-sponsored the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, which would represent a vital first step in a national response to plastic pollution.
Having failed to learn the lessons of 30 years of failed climate negotiations, the United States is actively promoting the Paris Agreement as a model for plastic negotiations. Rather than seeking ambitious action to tackle plastic production, U.S. negotiators are calling for voluntary commitments, a major focus on recycling, and an approach that puts plastic producers at the table in negotiations with countries and communities plagued by plastic pollution. He also leads a coalition of countries seeking to reduce the ambition of the plastics treaty. This approach has failed in the fight against fossil fuel-induced climate change. And people around the world are living with the accelerating consequences.
Markey sits on three Senate committees that will oversee U.S. engagement in these negotiations, including the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As a major coastal state whose population and economy will be affected by the success or failure of the plastics treaty, Massachusetts has a strong interest in getting it right. The people of Massachusetts have proven they are ready to stand up to corporate deception and demand strong action to address the climate crisis and the growing impacts of climate change, and have shown they are also ready to act on the root causes of the plastics crisis. They should expect nothing less from the government that represents them to the international community.
Negotiators should abandon misplaced trust in the fossil fuel and plastics industry to help solve the problems its products create and its profits demand. The world missed this opportunity at the climate talks. It should no longer be missing on plastics.
Carroll Muffett is president of the Center for International Environmental Law.
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