Can any of us imagine a future devoid of plastic?
Mass production of this miracle invention only began about 80 years ago, the merest wink of an eye when viewed against modern humankind’s 300 000 year-long presence on Earth.
Yet, it seems that we are now completely addicted to it.
Plastic – mostly derived from synthetic, petroleum-based formulations – has become so ubiquitous that our lives would surely be cast into turmoil if production were to be banned or scaled down significantly. If you doubt this, just take a quick peek around your home, starting in the kitchen.
Where do we keep the piles of “rubbish” generated from daily urban living? For most of us, the answer is a black plastic bag.
Now take a look inside your fridge at the plastic tubs of yoghurt, the plastic sachets of milk or pesto sauce, the plastic bottles holding water or mango juice and the airtight Tupperware containers and cling film that help keep leftover food from rotting.
The very lining of your fridge is made from lightweight and durable plastics. Underground pipes that deliver and remove water from our homes are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic.
Looking carefully around our homes, offices and the world, we realise quickly just how much plastic there is. It is almost everywhere. Can we really do without it?
For all its convenience and many benefits, discarded plastic has become an enormous and unsightly environmental menace on land and sea.
Formerly pristine beaches around the world are now blighted by piles of floating plastic detritus. A wide variety of sea creatures – turtles, birds, seals and fish – perish daily after eating or getting tangled up in the torrent of plastic litter that ends up in the sea.
Every year, roughly nine million tonnes of discarded plastic pollutes the world’s oceans.
According to the International Energy Agency, the cumulative load of plastic entering the oceans will exceed 500 million tonnes 30 years from now if no significant global action is taken to curb this flow.
Conservation group the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) estimates that three-quarters of all the plastic produced in the past eight decades has already become waste and that production is expected to surge by nearly 40% over the next decade, following major investments by the international plastics industry.
These reasons alone should be sufficient to inspire tougher regulations and political action. But purely from the selfish perspective of Homo sapiens, there is an even more compelling reason to take action: plastic and its associated toxic additives are sleeping slowly into the global food chain from a variety of land and sea sources.
Human health impact
In February, a report titled Plastic and Health: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet acknowledged that the full impact of plastic pollution on human health remains poorly understood. But it asserts that almost every stage of the plastic life cycle poses distinct risks to human health.
The report, published by the Center for International Environmental Law and other groups concerned about the impact of plastic, suggests that “even with the limited data available, the health impacts of plastic throughout its life cycle are overwhelming … plastic threatens human health on a global scale”.
This is because plastic slowly breaks down into tiny pieces that are swallowed or absorbed by marine life. These fragments of microplastic can also enter the human body by two main pathways: airborne particles that enter our lungs or directly into our stomachs when eating seafood.
David Azoulay, an attorney and the director of the centre’s environmental health programme, says these fragments can act as a delivery mechanism for toxic chemicals that have accumulated in the environment.
“Existing research shows that plastic additives such as phthalates, BPA and some flame retardants are endocrine disruptors and carcinogens. It also shows that plastic can accumulate heavy metals and adsorb toxic contaminants, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and organochlorine pesticides from the surrounding [sea] water.
“Further clues into the impacts of microparticles [including plastic] that enter the human body can be found in medical literature. Once inside the body, microplastic particles can cross biological boundaries.”
Amid growing public concern about the scale of plastic pollution, the issue came to the fore at the fourth United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA 4) held in Nairobi, Kenya, from 11 to 15 March.
On the final day of the assembly, environment ministers from around the world issued a declaration that included “the first universal commitment” to reducing the volume of single-use plastics.
“We will address the damage to our ecosystems caused by the unsustainable use and disposal of plastic products, including by significantly reducing single-use plastic products by 2030, and we will work with the private sector to find affordable and environmentally friendly alternatives,” said the ministers.
But according to Azoulay and other sources close to the negotiations, the final declaration on marine plastic litter and phasing out single-use plastic was greatly watered down in comparison with earlier drafts.
One of the proposals, submitted by Norway, Japan and Sri Lanka, aimed to strengthen international cooperation on marine plastic litter and microplastics, including a new legally binding agreement. The second, proposed by India, aimed to phase out single-use plastics worldwide.
‘Very tough’ negotiations
“Despite sweeping agreement by the majority of countries that urgent, ambitious and global action is needed to address plastic across its life cycle – from production to use to disposal – a small minority led by the United States blocked ambitious text and delayed negotiations,” said Azoulay.
“Backed by a strong industry lobby with over $200 billion invested in petrochemical buildout to drastically expand plastic production, the US delegation was able to thwart progress and water down the resolutions.”
Estonian Minister of Environment and UNEA 4 president Siim Kiisler ducked questions on this issue at a press conference on the final day of negotiations. When asked if he could confirm that the United States delegation played a “spoiler role” in seeking to water down stronger action on environmental problems, Kissler responded: “I will not answer this question.”
Significantly, perhaps, Kiisler did not deny the claims, confirming that negotiations had been “very tough” and that the draft ministerial declaration had passed through five or six iterations during several nights of consultations.
Norwegian Minister of Climate and Environment Ola Elvestuen skirted similar questions, suggesting that the final ministerial declaration on single-use plastics was “good enough to work on” at future UNEA meetings.
‘Complicated and crucial’
American negotiators were not present at the press conference, but US delegation head Marcia Bernicat delivered a statement on the same day suggesting that governments were now facing “some of the most complicated and crucial problems humans have ever confronted”.
“How can we combat biodiversity loss while sustaining the livelihoods of those dependent on fishing and farming? How can we stop losing or wasting one third of the food we produce? How can we keep plastics out of our oceans?
“We have made great strides over the past two weeks,” said Bernicat. “There is a healthy debate on the preferred solutions to some of these problems, and we must continue working together to address them.”
Marco Lambertini, the director general of conservation group WWF International, reflected that there had been an explosion of interest in global plastic pollution over the past few years.
“We used to look at it mostly as a visible, aesthetic problem. Only recently have we realised that it’s also potentially dangerous.”
Noting that nearly nine million tonnes of plastic is leaking into the sea each year, Lambertini said the pollution of the world’s oceans was not being treated with the urgency it deserved. If nine million tonnes of crude oil leaked into the sea each year, oil industry executives would be fired or prosected.
“But with plastic, there is no accountability. This has to change … [Plastic] producers need to see this as a problem that they need to answer to and governments need to recognise that it is a problem they need to regulate. We need to be serious about dealing with this serious issue,” he said, expressing disappointment that the final ministerial declaration was not strong enough.
Fijian ministry of environment permanent secretary Joshua Wycliffe said his island nation had started to clamp down on the importation of non-biodegradable plastic.
“Our tourist beaches are beautiful and we want to keep them that way,” he said, noting that action by plastic producers only began when governments began to close the doors to trade.
European Commission environment director general Hugo-Maria Schally echoed this suggestion, saying: “Business needs to be helped – and legislation helps, even though industry does not like it.”
Schally said no legally binding global treaty on plastic pollution would make sense unless industry, government and society tackled the issue of plastics design and production. Industry would also have to provide detailed information on toxic additives used in plastic manufacture.
“We can’t live without plastic, but we need to make it possible to bring plastic back into the value chain [through recycling]. If industry does not reflect and come up with targets, perhaps we will have to close some doors.”
Swedish Climate and Environment Minister Isabella Lövin said her country supported the goal of significantly reducing the use of single-use plastic by 2030, but that governments should consider going much further and ban single-use products such as plastic earbuds.
Representing the powerful US plastics industry, Stewart Harris argued in favour of strengthening existing global agreements and establishing new voluntary agreements rather than establishing a new global treaty focused solely on plastic pollution.
Harris, who is the director of marine and environmental stewardship at the American Chemistry Council’s plastics division, said a global alliance of plastics producers led by consumer goods company Procter & Gamble recently announced plans to fight plastic waste, pledging to spend $1.5 billion over the next five years.
The funds are to be spent mainly on waste collection projects in Africa and Asia, technology for recycling and reusing waste, the education of governments and local communities, and for cleaning up highly polluted areas.
Azoulay said the $1.5 billion, industry-led plan to deal with plastic pollution is but a fraction of what the industry plans to spend – more than $200 billion – building new plastic factories in the next five to seven years.
“We have to change the global narrative on plastics, however much time it takes. But the later you start, the later you are going to get there.”