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ClientEarth Communications

25th April 2024


Why we need a global deal on plastics

The world is approaching full saturation point with plastics. The facts are not new – plastic particles are being found everywhere from the Arctic Circle to placentas. 

And we now know that the idea that we can recycle our way out of the plastics problem was built on a lie – pushed by plastics manufacturers and the fossil fuel industry. 

Plastics are made from climate-destroying fossil fuels. They’re a hazard to people and planetary health. And somehow, manufacturing is set to boom, with plastics production poised to take up 20% of the world’s carbon budget by 2050.

So this isn’t about dealing with waste. We need to cut supply.

And right now, global leaders are meeting to negotiate a deal that could finally turn the tide on unchecked plastics production. The deal is supposed to be finalised in the coming months.

Could the final Treaty be the ‘Paris’ moment for plastics? 

What we need from a Global Plastics Treaty

In our view, a global agreement on plastics will not be up to the job of tackling this worldwide crisis unless it commits to the following:

1. Addressing the full lifecycle of plastics

The issues with plastic starts far before an item is thrown away. Oil or gas has to be extracted, refined, transported – often across the world – and then ‘cracked’ to make the building blocks of what will become plastics products. The fallout of these processes for local communities, and the climate, are dire. And around 75% of emissions from plastics production happen during these initial stages

The end result of this initial process is tiny plastic pellets that are then taken to be processed yet again, with more chemicals and colours added, to make the end product

Then, after the item has reached the end of its life, it generally ends up being sent to landfill, burnt or abandoned in the environment, ready to release all of its contained greenhouse gases back into the atmosphere. Only a slim minority of plastics globally ever end up being recycled. 

A treaty on plastics that overlooks a segment of this lifecycle – such as production, as some countries have proposed – would be moot.

2. A global, legally-binding plastics REDUCTION target

Fossil fuel companies and the plastics industry are making it impossible to avoid plastics, despite our best efforts, by pumping tonnes of plastic into our lives. This industry has the unusual quality of creating demand because of an excess of supply.  

Estimates indicate that plastics and other petrochemicals industries will drive half of the growth in demand of fossil fuel production by 2050. And consumption is set to nearly double by around the same time. 

That’s why this deal must deliver a concrete target to reduce global production, cutting the unnecessary plastics glut in the first place. Fossil fuel companies are fighting this ambition, all too eager to say that plastic pollution has to be blamed on consumers. In fact, as this round of negotiations on the plastics treaty kicks off, it’s been reported that Exxon and other petrochemicals giants are pushing hard against any cap on plastics production – unsurprising, given that plastics are their Plan B in the face of declining demand for oil.

But recycling, despite what you’d hope, is the fate of only the minority of plastics. Despite what fossil fuel companies would have us believe, recycling cannot cope with the sheer amount of plastic flooding into the world – only 9% ever made has been recycled. The rest is dumped, buried or burnt. 

3. No new plants

If we’re going to cut plastics production, that means stopping new plants and plant expansions. If more plastic is being made, more plastic will be consumed, landfilled, incinerated and discarded into the environment. That’s why we’re going against INEOS’ plan to build a multi-billion-Euro plastic facility in the port of Antwerp, Belgium – and we’re scoring victories. The project has been reduced to half its planned size, and been delayed several times. 

Our view is that the world should already have reached peak plastic. So the Global Plastics Treaty needs to take a stand against new plastics plants and bring an end to public funding that supports them. 

4. Protecting health and rights first

The reason this treaty is on the table is to protect us and protect the planet that we rely on. The human rights to life, health, a healthy environment, food, water, sanitation, cultural rights and access to information are all affected by the way plastic is currently produced and dealt with in the world. It’s why the Treaty needs to systematically see and respond to the full impact of plastics – not focus on parts of its lifecycle. 

Local communities around plastic plants are paying with their health because of the toxic pollution refineries belch out. So-called ‘sacrifice zones’ are emerging wherever plastic plants are. 

And at the consumer end, of the 10,500 chemical substances that can be found in plastics, almost a quarterare of potential concern for human health and have been linked to diabetes, obesity, certain types of cancer and other illnesses. These are in plastics that transfer into our food and are used in babies’ toys.

So we need human rights, health and the protection of the environment to be at the heart of any agreement made. 

5. Making sure public and private money supports the Treaty’s aims

Alongside all of this, we know from other major global treaties – notably the Paris Agreement – that how financial flows are mobilised is paramount to making sure a Treaty is effective. One stipulation of the Paris Agreement is that financial flows be “consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development”. The Global Plastics Treaty needs equivalent provisions to ensure that public and private financing contribute to delivering its objectives across the full life cycle of plastic, both upstream and downstream.

It is absolutely vital that this is more than a plastics recycling treaty. We must reduce the global production of plastic

You can read in full about what we’re expecting from the deal here.

Businesses are on borrowed time. New laws are entering into force and consumers will not accept unnecessary packaging and embedded health risks for long. Whatever deal we see, ClientEarth will keep fighting to tackle the plastics glut – against Coca-Cola and Nestlé, INEOS and others.

The plastic bubble is set to burst – and the Treaty is the way to get ahead of it.  

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