- The researchers highlighted a worrying level of focus on downstream recycling and waste management
- They said the true solution must address the full life cycle of plastics
Researchers have called for a holistic approach in tackling plastic pollution.
The researchers, in a new Science journal, say the plastic treaty must prioritise issues such as cutting total production and consumption of plastics.
This is in addition to phasing out hazardous chemicals and tackling fossil fuel subsidies.
“The new Global Plastics Treaty must tackle the problem at source,” the researchers said.
There will be an International negotiation meeting (INC-3) next week that aims to further develop a legally binding treaty on plastic pollution.
In the journal, the researchers highlighted a worrying level of focus on downstream recycling and waste management.
They said the true solution must address the full life cycle of plastics.
According to the researchers, the treaty must be holistic, with more focus on early interventions and the people, places and ecosystems most impacted by plastic pollution.
Dr Mengjiao Wang from Greenpeace Research Laboratories at the University of Exeter said currently, a lot of attention and capital is focused on recycling and cleaning up plastic already in the environment, in many cases just after a single use.
“That is vital work, but it can only be part of the solution, and only if done in a safe, environmentally sound and socially just way. Removing the mess while making more is a doomed strategy. We cannot recycle our way out,”she said.
“An effective treaty must be holistic, covering everything from fossil fuel extraction and plastic production to recycling and removing waste that already pollutes our land and ocean.”
Currently, downstream recovery and recycling receives 88 per cent of investment money, while just four per cent is directed to upstream reuse solutions.
The authors said this imbalance comes from “fossil-fuel-entwined political economy of plastics”, which continues to accelerate production, consumption and waste.
This further adds to the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.
The researchers said the zero draft of the treaty disproportionately emphasises waste management investment and neglects opportunities for more efficient and cost-effective upstream strategies like reduction, redesign and reuse.
Dr Lucy Woodall from the University of Exeter said the new treaty could and should become a global mechanism, to close a key loophole left by the Paris Agreement.
“The problem of plastic pollution is huge, and it can feel overwhelming. But there are opportunities and challenges at each stage of the life cycle of plastics, from fossil fuel extraction onwards,” said Woodall.
In three letters to Science, the researchers, highlighted several other points that the treaty must include.
“One vital step is to focus on ecosystems. Once in the environment, plastic litter can entangle and choke wildlife, and plastic objects can act as a reservoir for invasive species and concentrate other pollutants. Plastics can also break down into potentially toxic micro- and nanoplastics,” Woodall said.
The treaty’s zero draft used terms such as “hotspot” and “cleanup”, putting focus on concentrations rather than natural systems and their specific context.
This means the well-being and livelihoods of nature and people these pollutants affect are ignored.
“This implies that the plastics problem can be solved without considering ecosystem restoration and the disproportionate burden of plastic pollution in some ecosystems,” she said.
“Vibrant ecosystems are vital for biodiversity and human health, so protecting them should be the centre of our approach.”
Chemicals in plastics are one of the key barriers to addressing global plastic pollution.
Current regulations do not require producers to track or publish information on the levels of harmful chemicals.
The authors noted the need to significantly reduce the production and use of especially hazardous chemicals, and increasing transparency and traceability along the whole supply chain.
This will fulfill one of the many necessary steps to ensure products can be safely and effectively recycled.
“Researchers are hopeful that an effective treaty can be agreed. But some countries are expected to resist more ambitious language and delay the process. When we speak to negotiators, they give us a political ‘reality check’ about balancing ambition with getting a treaty agreed in due time,” Wang said.
“In return, our role as scientists is to provide a scientific reality check about the scale of this problem and the solutions that can actually work to bring us back to the safe operating space of the earth."
“We need a treaty that is holistic and ambitious, tackling every stage of this problem – extraction, production, resource allocation – to stop the build-up of plastic waste and harmful chemicals in our planet’s precious ecosystems,” she said.