A freighter loaded with bales of used plastic casts off somewhere in the industrialized world, gaining steam as it sails toward a developing country. After the ship arrives in port and the cargo is unloaded, it’s anyone’s guess how much—if any—of this plastic will be recycled. Some or all could get stacked in landfills, burned in the open, or blown away as litter that eventually ends up in the ocean, the final resting place in our environment for plastic debris.
Images of sea turtles choking on translucent bags and dead seabirds with bellies full of colorful plastic debris have snagged the attention of the public and policy makers worldwide. The same is true for mountains of plastic waste building up in developing countries that lack infrastructure to recycle or dispose of it. At United Nations meetings for the last several years, governments have discussed how they might address plastic waste.
After all those years of discussion, the world may finally be getting serious about keeping plastic, including microplastics, out of the environment and finding a way to reuse products, flakes of used polymers, or the molecules that make up plastics. Many governments, environmental activists, and companies, including the global chemical industry, generally concur that a treaty to control plastics is the way to go. They see an accord as a route to improve the collection of used plastics and increase infrastructure for recycling the materials.
“A UN treaty on plastic pollution can help drive the transition to a circular economy for plastic,” says a declaration from Coca-Cola and other multinational corporations that are key drivers in the global demand for plastics.
In a circular economy, used plastics become the raw materials for new plastics. Other companies that signed the declaration include Colgate-Palmolive, Henkel, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever, as well as retailer H&M and food-service company Sodexo. They want international focus on the entire product life cycle of plastics, not just a focus on marine litter, says Tim Grabiel, senior lawyer for the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency, an advocacy group.
That so many users of vast quantities of plastic are calling for a plastics treaty “signals winds of change” in global policies and for markets, says Jane Patton, a senior campaigner for the nonprofit Center for International Environmental Law.
The International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA), which represents many makers of plastics, also backs creation of a treaty. Echoing the corporations’ declaration, Stewart Harris, who often speaks on behalf of the ICCA at UN meetings, says a new pact must “really stimulate a move towards a circular economy.”
Of course, the devil is in the details. Achieving circularity will require distinct strategies for different countries or regions of the world, says Harris, who is senior director of marine and environmental stewardship in the Plastics Division of the American Chemistry Council, a US industry group. He points to India’s thriving business in converting used polyethylene terephthalate—the plastic commonly used for water and other beverage bottles—into fabric. Because of this existing infrastructure, India may opt for a different strategy for handling plastics than, say, Latin America, Harris says.
Patton, however, is skeptical of creating a treaty that encourages countries to take a patchwork of approaches. “Plastic supply chains are global,” she says. Thus a harmonized worldwide effort is needed to address plastic, she says.
Regardless, the overall goal for a treaty is to ensure that all used plastic is collected, managed properly, and recycled, Patton and Harris agree. “Keep it in the economy and out of the environment,” Harris says. Patton and Grabiel stress that to achieve this end, the world needs adequate plastics recycling infrastructure, which it currently lacks.
One big hurdle is that a glut of cheap virgin plastic, derived from abundant and inexpensive fracked natural gas, is currently undermining efforts to recycle plastic, Grabiel says.
“It’s generally accepted that recycled plastic costs more” than plastic produced directly from fossil fuels, Harris says.
Nevertheless, some companies, responding to consumer demand, still seek to use recycled material. That reveals a second barrier: demand for recycled plastic outstrips supply. “If you are a company that is looking to put more recycled content in your packaging, it’s very difficult to find,” Harris says. He adds, “I don’t think price is the barrier” to more widespread recycling of plastic today.
The ICCA promotes recycling plastics by mechanical means—chipping used material into flakes and melting them to form new products—and through chemical processes, Harris says. Some chemical recycling operations break down polymers into monomers for reuse as building blocks to create new plastics. Other chemical recycling approaches produce additives or fuels.
Environmentalists look askance at the chemical industry’s enthusiasm for chemical recycling of plastic and are skeptical about a treaty endorsing this process. They point out that chemical recycling is energy intensive. Also, recycling plastics into fuels takes materials out of a circular plastics economy and leads to the release of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and other pollutants, such as particulate matter, when the fuels burn.
Harris says that chemical recycling efforts initially produced fuels because demand to recycle back into plastic was low. That’s not the case today, he says.
Meanwhile, Grabiel and some other environmental advocates want governments to model a plastics treaty on the highly successful strategy used to phase out chemicals that erode Earth’s protective stratospheric ozone layer. Under the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, countries agreed to first cap and then phase out the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone-destroying chemicals. This created demand for alternative chemicals that were either less harmful or ozone safe—but more expensive, Grabiel says.
Similar to how the world phased out CFCs, “we need to give up virgin plastic production and consumption,” Grabiel says. A global policy to reduce the supply of new resins and pellets will increase the demand for recycled plastics and promote investment in infrastructure for collection and recycling, he says.
Not surprisingly, the ICCA sees such a strategy and a global freeze on virgin plastic manufacturing as problematic. “How would you implement it in such a way that it didn’t cause massive disruptions to the market?” Harris asks. He reiterates that countries need to come up with their own strategies for addressing plastics.
Concerns about plastics’ contribution to global warming are also cropping up. More than 50 countries and the European Union, joined by a number of environmental advocacy groups, are part of a global coalition that emphasizes that the manufacture of virgin plastic contributes to climate change.
Although plastics can help address climate change, such as by replacing heavier materials to improve fuel efficiency in transportation, “the production of plastic is typically energy-intensive and relies on fossil fuel feedstock,” says the coalition, called the Group of Friends, which is led by Antigua and Barbuda, the Maldives, and Norway.
Plus, extraction of natural gas and oil for plastics feedstocks releases methane, Patton points out. Methane, a greenhouse gas, has 28–36 times as much potential to cause global warming as carbon dioxide over 100 years. On the other end of the plastics life cycle, items buried in landfills also release methane as they break down.
“It doesn’t matter where in the supply chain you look—they have a very large climate footprint,” Patton says of plastics.
Patton also thinks a new treaty should call for plastics of the future to be nontoxic—made without additives hazardous to health. The pact should also have an environmental justice goal to ensure that no countries are disproportionately burdened with other nations’ plastic waste, she says.
These and other issues will surely come up at treaty talks, which could start as early as next year. In February 2022, the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA), the world’s top body on environmental policies and law, is expected to launch negotiations.
Where the US stands on a possible treaty isn’t yet clear. A Department of State spokesperson tells C&EN, “The United States strongly supports taking action to address plastic pollution, including ocean plastic pollution. We look forward to working with UNEA partners to consider how we should move forward.”
If it opts for negotiating a plastics pact, the UNEA could recommend that the new accord be an extension of an existing environmental treaty, Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, told reporters in February. Governments haven’t settled on which agreement that might be, Andersen said.
A strong contender is a pact controlling international trade of hazardous waste—the 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. The Basel Convention requires that before someone ships most plastic scrap and waste to another country, that country must be notified and consent to receiving the materials. Though most countries—187—are partners to this treaty, the US is not among them.
Regardless of the form it takes, Harris says a plastics pact will help the world answer a key challenge: “How do we take this great product and keep it in our economy?”
“That’s something we really haven’t been able to do,” he says. “A global agreement will help us get there.”
This story originally implied that Inger Andersen suggested that the Basel Convention is a strong contender for extension to include plastics. She did not. The story was revised on May 24, 2021, to avoid that attribution.
The story was updated on May 27, 2021, to clarify that Andersen said the UN Environment Assembly could recommend the new accord be an extension of an existing treaty, not that the UNEA is likely to do so.