As the New Year begins it’s worth reflecting on why it is so critically important for businesses and governments to accelerate a shift away from petro-based plastics. In light of our worsening experience of the threats to public health, the economy, and the survival of all species—including humans—being caused by global plastics pollution, the time for coordinated global action is now.
You don’t need to take my word for it.
According to a report published in the peer reviewed journal Science about a February 2021 meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA), the world’s highest-level decision-making body on the environment,
“Many governments spoke in favor of an international agreement to combat plastic pollution…In the past, the international community tended to view the plastics problem from a predominantly ocean-focused and waste-centered perspective. However, plastics are increasingly found in all environmental media, including terrestrial ecosystems and the atmosphere, as well as human matrices, including lungs and placenta.”
Building on the arguments presented at the UNEA’s February 2021 meeting, the authors of the article published in Science argue for “a new international legally binding agreement that addresses the entire life cycle of plastics, from extraction of raw materials to legacy plastic pollution.” According to the authors,
“Only by taking this approach can efforts match the magnitude and transboundary nature of this escalating problem and its social, environmental, and economic impacts. Targeting the full life cycle of plastics [will] allow for a more equitable distribution of the costs and benefits of relevant actions across the global value chain… The start of negotiations is overdue.”
The past year also saw publication in the United States of a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that adds force to recommendations for global action on petro-plastics. The NAS report concludes that the “plastic waste crisis has been building for decades” and recommends that “the U.S. establish a nationally coordinated and expanded monitoring system to track plastic pollution in order to understand the scale and sources of the U.S. plastic waste problem, set reduction and management priorities, and measure progress in addressing it,” adding that plastic waste is having “devastating impacts on the ocean’s health, marine wildlife, and communities.” Without changing current practices, the NAS report says “plastics will continue to accumulate in the ocean with adverse consequences…[and] today’s recycling processes and infrastructure are grossly insufficient to manage the complexity and quantity of plastic waste.”
Beyond the ecosystem and public health threats caused by plastic waste, there is also the less visible fact that fossil-fuel-based plastics are among the most energy-intensive materials to produce, generating growing greenhouse gases in amounts that literally threaten the future existence of life on Earth. Industry estimates project plastics production to increase almost four-fold by 2050, which would contribute greenhouse gas pollution equal to almost fifteen percent of the planet’s total carbon budget. Analyses indicate that even the current production level of petro-plastics causes enough greenhouse gas emissions to threaten humanity’s ability to keep global temperature from rising above 1.5°C which is a fundamental objective of the Paris Agreement.
In December of 2021 we lost history’s greatest conservation biologist, E.O. Wilson, the 20th century’s successor to Darwin. Dr. Wilson, an inspirational mentor to so many of us, prophetically warned that “Despite the seemingly fathomless extent of creation, humankind has been chipping away at its diversity, and earth is destined to become an impoverished planet within a century if present trends continue.”
Clearly, the time for coordinated global action on petro-plastics pollution is overdue. To avoid becoming the impoverished planet prophesied by E.O. Wilson the world cannot tolerate another fifty years of worsening petro-plastics pollution. Indeed, humanity and all the species we depend on and admire might not be able to survive another fifty years of worsening petro-plastics pollution.
An international agreement to address the life-cycle impacts of plastics is surely urgently needed. However, over the past 35 years I’ve worked on UN treaty conventions and I know that those efforts take years negotiate, sometimes decades, however critically important the treaty might be. Moreover, despite education campaigns promoting “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” and despite hundreds of bans on some single use plastics, plastic pollution trends continue to worsen. That’s why the innovation of bioplastic technology is so important. To address a worsening problem as global and complex as plastics pollution, we surely need to embrace every tool available, including the replacement of fossil-fuel-based plastics with ecologically preferable bio-based alternatives. There is no doubt that not all bio-based alternatives to petro-plastics are ecological winners. No one has a monopoly on virtue. Consequently, life-cycle transparency is essential. However, whether or not some plastic products can be banned, reduced, reused or recycled, whether we craft an international treaty in the next five years or never, plastics should no longer be made from fossil fuels.
Allen Hershkowitz PhD
Allen Hershkowitz PhD was a Senior Scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council from 1988 to 2016 and is the Founding Director and Chairman of Sport and Sustainability International. He serves as the Environmental Science Advisor to numerous sports leagues and teams.
Earlier Postings in this Column
Photographer J. Henry Fair
The opinions expressed here by Allen Hershkowitz and other columnists are their own, not those of Bioplasticsnews.com.