Research journal Science on July 2, 2021, published a special issue aiming to examine “a wide range of topics related to plastics and the problems they present.” Of the nine articles in the issue, four discuss the effects of plastic pollution on the earth’s systems and animals, two discuss the technologies hoping to contribute to plastic circularity, and one is a policy discussion supporting an “international legally binding agreement that addresses the entire life cycle of plastics.”
Nils Simon and coauthors from institutions on four continents argued in their policy forum that an international, binding agreement is the only way to “match the magnitude and transboundary nature of [plastic pollution’s] escalating problem and its social, environmental, and economic impacts.” They write that at least 79 governments support such an agreement, and in April the UN Environment Program released a legislative guide for reducing plastic waste generation (FPF reported) but individual agreements are not comprehensive or internationally binding. Peru and Rwanda have announced they will introduce a resolution at the next UN Environment Assembly meeting in February 2022. Simon et al. highlight three goals needed in a UN plastics treaty: (i) reduce virgin plastic production and use, (ii) “facilitate safe circularity,” and (iii) eliminate environmental plastic pollution.
According to the authors, reducing virgin plastic production “is the key measure needed to reverse worsening trends.” The goal could be reached by first focusing on the “most problematic” and easy to replace plastics and then strengthening policies over time. Many local and regional policies take this approach such as the EU Single Use Plastics Directive that came into force on July 3, 2021 (FPF reported here and here) or New Zealand’s Rethink Plastics plan (FPF reported).
Achieving “safe circularity” would involve rethinking plastic production and use at every step (FPF reported). Simon et al. highlight “most [plastic] additives are not addressed comprehensively under any international agreement, even though more than 1500 have been identified as chemicals of concern in plastics.” Recent work by Helene Wiesinger at ETH Zurich found over 10,000 chemicals are intentionally added to plastics, of which they categorized approximately 2500 as “substances of potential concern” (FPF reported). Other related topics within the special issue include an article by Kakadellis and Rosetto about how polymers could be designed specifically for monomer recovery and a review by Korley et al. on the recent developments in chemical recycling.
Stakeholders have argued that eliminating plastic pollution would also require both strengthening the plastics supply chain to prevent further leakage (FPF reported) and removing and disposing of what is already in the environment (FPF reported here and here). In their article, MacLeod et al. reviewed the global threat of plastic, describing how plastics are a “‘poorly reversible pollutant’ both because emissions cannot be curtailed and because it resides in the environment for a long time.” Other authors within the special issue provide short reviews of plastics’ impact on the Earth’s geophysical (Stubbins et al.) and biological systems (Santos et al. and Cornwall). MacLeod et al. highlight an additional complexity that plastics “can act in concert with other geophysical, biological, and chemical stressors to cause impacts” beyond their physical presence, such as through chemical leaching (FPF reported, also here and here). A key area for future research and in-depth policy considerations which was largely overlooked in this special issue are the widely unknown and unaddressed potential impacts of plastic exposure specifically on human health.
Considering these threats and systemic impacts, Simon and coauthors explain in their policy forum that it will take time to negotiate, enact, and see the impacts of a plastics treaty. They stress the necessity “to continuously develop and strengthen action through existing regional and multilateral institutions… Although a new agreement will come with costs, it will unlock sizable environmental, social, and economic benefits.”
Simon, N. et al. (July 2, 2021). “A binding global agreement to address the lifecycle of plastics.” Science
Kakadellis, S., and Rosetto, G. (July 2, 2021). “Achieving a circular bioeconomy for plastics.” Science
Korley, L. et al. (July 2, 2021). “Toward polymer upcycling—adding value and tackling circularity.” Science
MacLeod, M. et al. (July 2, 2021). “The global threat from plastic pollution.” Science
Stubbins, A., et al. (July 2, 2021). “Plastics in the Earth system.” Science
Santos, R., et al. (July 2, 2021). “Plastic ingestion as an evolutionary trap: Toward a holistic understanding.” Science
Warren Cornwall (July 2, 2021). “The plastic eaters.” Science