Erica Cirino, the Communications Manager of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, against the backdrop of plastic waste. - Photo: 2024

Plastic Pollution: Delayed Action or No Action Will Have Disastrous Consequences

By Simone Galimberti*

KATHMANDU, Nepal | 20 April 2024 (IDN) — Plastic Pollution Coalition, based in Washington, DC, is one of the strongest third-sector organizations engaged in the Global Plastic Treaty negotiations. The Coalition has been busy preparing for the upcoming fourth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-4) negotiating the draft treaty. The sessions will be held in Ottawa, Canada, 23-29 April.

In this interview, Erica Cirino, who is the Communications Manager of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, and a writer, artist, and author of ”Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the Plastic Crisis”, explains what is at stake in the INC-4.

Q: Why is the INC-4 so consequential from your point of view?

A: INC-4 is the second-to-last negotiating session before the UN Plastics Treaty is potentially finalized in 2025. It’s been more than two years since the United Nations agreed on a mandate to negotiate a legally binding treaty addressing the full “life cycle” of plastics, and three negotiating sessions later, progress on the treaty continues to be slow due to the influence of the very industries the treaty would—and needs to—regulate.

There is no time to waste to take advantage of this momentous opportunity to change the way humanity relates to plastic pollution, and most importantly, to the Earth and each other. The consequences of delayed action, or no action, to end plastic pollution at the source are clearly severe, as plastic production harms all people and the planet, drives extreme environmental injustices, harms biodiversity by killing plants and animals, and fuels the ever-more dire climate crisis.

Q: What are the realistic odds/chances for a real, game-changing outcome, during the INC-4?

A: So far, the draft treaty text is not an adequate document to address the full “life cycle” of plastics on a global scale, and much work needs to be done to make it effective. It is a long and overly complicated document and is peppered with vague terms about waste management that could potentially enable polluting practices of incineration and “advanced recycling” to continue.

It also currently exempts certain plastics, including those for medical and health use, emergency response, and scientific research, from regulation. The revised Zero Draft does importantly identify that a reduction of plastic production is a necessary aspect of the treaty, and offers a few options for cutting back production, either by requiring countries to set mandatory reduction levels or by setting one global reduction target.

Targeted reduction levels have not been established, but they could potentially be achieved by banning specific, easily avoided single-use plastic items and intentionally added microplastics (like microbeads), eliminating subsidies for producing plastic, and/or tapping into market-based options, such as a “plastic tax” that would disincentivize plastic production and use.

Notably, the Zero Draft proposes the establishment of targets for “reuse, repair, repurposing, and refurbishment” of plastic products. While these tenets are necessary for minimizing wastefulness, it’s important that systems incentivizing and supporting these tenets are built plastic-free.

All plastic products shed tiny plastic particles that pollute the Earth, wildlife, plants, and our bodies and contain toxic chemicals that are linked to serious health impacts like cancer, immune system problems, and fertility and reproductive issues.

Plastic-free materials, while they do still affect people and the planet, are less toxic and are far more reusable than plastics—reducing their total impacts.

Reflecting the interests of industries and industry representatives’ outsized presence at the treaty negotiations, recycling, cleanup, and waste management are a focus of the Zero Draft. However, plastic is not designed to be recycled, and recycling plastic only magnifies and transfers toxic chemicals.

It’s been widely recognized that such “downstream” solutions are not sufficient — and in fact they are a form of industry greenwashing that problematically puts the onus for dealing with plastic pollution on the public and perpetuates plastic production while delaying real solutions.

A critical gap is that the draft also fails to directly address and attempt to rectify the longstanding injustices, pollution, and harm caused by the fossil fuel and plastic industries to people and the planet. These and many more changes must be rectified during INC-4, and at INC-5 later this year.

Q: How is the Coalition getting ready for the upcoming INC-4 negotiations?

A: Plastic Pollution Coalition is sending several representatives to INC-4, and many more of our Coalition Member organizations, businesses, and individuals will also be joining. Plastic Pollution Coalition has prepared for the INC-4 by presenting petitions to the U.S. Government, calling on representatives to take a strong stance on the plastics treaty so that the agreement can be effective in ending plastic pollution and injustice.

We have been sharing information about the treaty with the public, at online and in-person events and on social and popular media. We reach a combined millions of people through our communications.

Q: Do you see coming to mounting pressure from plastic litigation? Could the recent victory at the European Court of Human Rights help the anti-plastic movement?

A: The latest climate and human rights ruling in Swiss courts is a significant one, but we must note that UN Human Rights experts more than three years ago finally recognized the profusion of petrochemical and plastics facilities and their pollution in southern Louisiana environmental racism—and yet, overwhelmingly world leaders prioritize the existence of these deadly and destructive industries over human and planetary health.

On a positive note, more members of the third sector are being seen and heard, both inside and outside the UN Plastics Treaty negotiations, and more of the public than ever before is aware of the serious health problems linked to plastics and fossil fuels, and the injustices frontline communities face.

The world demands change, and it is up to leaders to begin choosing a path that helps rather than harms, by immediately and significantly reducing plastic and fossil fuel production, upholding environmental and social justice, supporting real solutions and distributing solutions equitably, and taking a precautionary and strict approach to chemical and industrial regulation.

Q: You offer a comprehensive database of plastic laws. Do you see an evolution (for the better) of these legislations?

A: The Global Plastic Laws Database is an extensive database and resource library focused on plastic legislation that has been passed around the world. Generally, it has been very positive to see a surge in laws intended to curb plastic pollution over the last several decades.

However, we see that the piecemeal-type approach to passing legislation (one or few plastic items at a time, nation by nation, state by state, city by city, etc.) is far from efficient and effective in addressing all of plastic pollution on a global scale. Hence, the need for the UN Plastics Treaty.

Q: Are the positions of the petro-states (and the petrol chemical industry in the USA and the West) shifting for the better or are they still in their sort of “denialism” centred on the indispensability of plastic?

A: There are many obstacles to overcome in shaping an effective plastics treaty, and one of the biggest issues so far has been the overwhelming presence of industry representatives and industry language used at the treaty talks. To confuse matters, some industry representatives and governments have co-opted the language of real solutions, like “just transition,” and “circular,” yet their take on these terms means something different than what is intended by people who support real solutions.

Ultimately, our world must waste less, and it must stop producing toxic and wasteful plastic and fossil fuels. Real solutions include plastic-free, nontoxic systems of reuse, refill, repair, share, and regeneration. Industry and pro-industry governments reduce space for meaningful discussion of real solutions, especially for the people most harmed by plastic pollution—the people on the frontlines of the interconnected fossil fuel, plastic, and waste industries’ infrastructure and activities.

What’s more, many historic fossil fuel and plastic-friendly governments continue to advance false solutions such as plastics recycling and downstream cleanups, which are well established as being inadequate to solve plastic pollution—this is a huge waste of precious time.

Q: What do you expect from the Biden Administration?

A: World leaders have a rare opportunity to address this urgent global crisis—right now—with the UN Plastics Treaty. We ask for the public’s help in making sure they seize this opportunity by telling U.S. Representatives and world leaders to support a strong, binding treaty.

Further, we call on President Biden to stop approvals for new and expanded petrochemical facilities, which is a key step in seriously addressing plastic pollution and environmental injustices in the U.S.

Q: What are the chances that “protection and restoration of biodiversity, and nature per se, are going to be incorporated in the legally binding control measures and enforcement terms of the ILBI” (Quotes from IUCN’s position

A: Even if industries stopped making plastic today (which would be great!), the issue of microplastics, chemical pollution, and its related injustices would persist into the future. The consequences of plastic pollution on the more than human beings we share the Earth with is, in short, horrifying:

From the smallest plankton to the largest blue whale, to insects and plants, plastic and chemical pollution, land development, and industrial activities directly harm and kill living beings, in addition to diminishing ecosystem health that reduces the health of all life on this planet. The production, use, transportation, and disposal of plastics are significant drivers of biodiversity loss globally.

This is why an effective plastics treaty must also incorporate a strong plan for remediation, especially in the most polluted regions and communities. Yet at the same time, the most important action to take its stopping fossil fuel extraction and plastic production:

If your bathtub was overflowing, you wouldn’t just start mopping the floor immediately. First, you’d turn off the tap. We must do that with plastics, or the problem will only grow—and it is growing exponentially.

Q: What do you a) hope and b) realistically expect on the negotiations related to plastic’s full life cycle?
  1. a) We hope negotiators will understand the full “life cycle” of plastics includes the extraction, storage, transportation, and refining of fossil fuels; as well as the production, storage, transportation, use, and disposal of plastics, and will craft a plastics treaty that effectively stops plastic pollution at the source—starting with fossil fuel extraction and plastic production.
  2. b) We are seeing resistance to the idea of progressive reduction of plastics from the plastics and fossil fuel industries, as well as plastic and fossil fuel friendly nations. Of course, that is because some nations believe doing so would cut into their bottom lines and GDP. However, it’s critical that this action be taken in order to best protect human and all planetary life. And in fact, the costs of business as usualfar outweigh any perceived economic gains—both financially and tangibly.
Q: How much is the civil society involved and engaged in the ongoing negotiations?

A: Third-sector participants, including youth, have made loud and clear the importance of protecting the health and rights of humans and the Earth. They have had high levels of representation at the talks as observers and during UN Plastics Treaty side events, especially at INC-3 in Nairobi.

And the third sector is being heard: At INC-3, some countries, especially those from Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and the Africa Region strongly showed their support for addressing plastic production, chemicals of concern, protecting human and environmental health and rights, recognizing the importance of Indigenous knowledge, and defining the path for a just transition.

The UN Plastics Treaty affects everyone, everywhere—and all parties, from frontline and grassroots groups, NGOs, government representatives, educators, businesses, and the media must prioritize discussion and support of a strong plastics treaty now.

*Simone Galimberti, based in Kathmandu, writes about the SDGs, youth-centred policymaking and a stronger and better United Nations. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo: Erica Cirino, the Communications Manager of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, against the backdrop of plastic waste.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate

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