THE ENVIRONMENT - As I prepare to join the next round of United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) negotiations for a Global Plastics Treaty in Paris, one thing weighs heavily on my mind: It appears that powerful industry lobbyists and their allies are successfully gaslighting the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) process by convincing UNEP to promote their false solutions.
UNEP is an organization entrusted to seek real solutions to one of humanity’s greatest environmental challenges, yet it is now advocating for industry profits over people and the environment.
Their recent report “Turning off the Tap: How the world can end plastic pollution and create a circular economy” attempts to provide a blueprint for a future free of plastic pollution. However, the title couldn’t be more misleading and the report falls short on many fronts. Most concerning is the alarmingly low ambition to reduce plastic pollution by 2040: according to our calculations, only a 3.6 percent reduction per year from 2023 to 2040, while production is expected to double over the same period.
The strategy relies on the expanded use of chemical recycling technologies, along with other forms of incineration and waste disposal to achieve 43 percent of the reduction. These industry “solutions” generate large amounts of toxic pollution and hazardous waste and rely on a steady feedstock of plastic waste, exacerbating environmental injustices, waste colonialism and climate change. Maintaining high levels of annual plastic production and pollution will have catastrophic and irreversible effects on human health and the environment.
This latest UNEP analysis largely ignores the single most effective solution to ending the plastic crisis: investing in systems designed to eliminate the demand for non-essential plastics. This solution threatens the petrochemical industries that produce plastics, and large multinational consumer goods industries that rely on plastic packaging. These industries profit most from the plastic crisis while externalizing all social and environmental costs, estimated to reach $300-$600 billion per year, with some estimates exceeding $1.5 trillion according to the report. Considering the $600-700 billion in annual revenue from plastic production, it is clear almost all industry profits come at the expense of human health and the environment.
Moreover, these social costs are likely to be highly underestimated as the health consequences of plastics proven to be in our blood, digestive systems, lungs, breast milk, male and female reproductive systems and potentially brains, are not yet clear.
Increasing ambition to cap plastic production, and creating a strict time-bound strategy to eliminate single-use plastics are the solutions that environmental justice leaders, fenceline and frontline community leaders, Indigenous leaders, scientists, environmental and public health professionals, non-profits and other community-based organizations are demanding. Yet, all their voices are being drowned out by the plastic industry’s overwhelming influence and power.
As UNEP claims to advocate for a “just and inclusive transition,” I hope the participation of these groups in the INC process doesn’t become tokenism under the guise of “inclusivity.”
The “circular” plastic economy promoted in the UNEP report and backed by industry is an oxymoron at its core and contradicts UNEP’s own definition of a circular economy. It is doubtful that most reusable plastic products will circulate for more than a few months, let alone 25 or 30 years, and almost all recycled plastic is actually downcycled into a lower-quality product. Therefore the plastic reuse/recycle feedback loop is only a temporary delay of the inevitable, and perpetuates the toxic plastic economy that is impacting all of us.
As the world’s largest plastic polluters penetrate the rural economies of developing nations, the current plastic economy and proposed “circular” plastic economy continue to displace traditional systems that are truly sustainable and circular. UNEP’s scenario, according to the report, would result in over 145 million metric tons of plastic per year being converted to fuel, landfilled, chemically recycled, incinerated, openly burned or ending up as terrestrial or ocean pollution by 2040. All of these would continue to poison our air, water, land and bodies. That is not an acceptable measure of success.
Instead, innovative, bottom-up, community-based solutions should be promoted for plastic-free reuse, refill and packaging systems that are non-toxic, creating cleaner, greener, locally-owned businesses and jobs. Supporting small business incubators and microfinance for entrepreneurs and community organizations to develop plastic-free packaging and reuse/refill systems would be more effective to establish zero-waste systems compatible with local traditions, culture, socio-economic conditions and capacity to manage solid waste.
UNEP’s vision includes plans to “reorient and diversify” the market for safe plastic alternatives, and this is where innovation to eliminate non-essential plastics is needed most. Creating opportunities via bottom-up strategies to phase out single-use plastics and prevent their entry into local markets would create systems to provide clean and healthy alternative livelihoods for those working in the informal plastic economy under dangerous conditions.
While UNEP is calling for a transformation of the plastic economy, we are calling for the elimination of the plastic economy for all non-essential plastics. We are proposing real, equitable solutions with large-scale investments and financial models focused on plastic-free reuse/refill and other zero-waste systems. Drastically reducing plastic production and pollution is the first step in the transition to a truly circular economy.
(Alejandra Warren is co-founder and executive director of Plastic Free Future, a California-based nonprofit organization dedicated to the reduction and elimination of plastic pollution. Before co-founding Plastic Free Future in 2020, Alejandra co-led efforts to pass the first single-use plastic ban in San Mateo County, California, in 2018. This article was first featured in CommonDreams.org.)