image: UNEP/Shawn Heinrichs
Posted on March 7, 2022 by Mary Ellen Ternes
While tragic global events make all news seem bad, there was some great news last week. As you may have read, on March 2, 2022 the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, with representatives from 175 nations including the United States and France (partners in collaboration), endorsed a historic UN Resolution to “end plastic pollution, and forge an international legally binding agreement by the end of 2024.”
But before I preach about plastic waste, with my mood lightened by this ray of hope, let me just offer a quick reminder of a foundational point: the law of conservation of mass, which recognizes that matter (with its specific mass) can change form, but before and after the change, the mass remains the same. This means, to the adults – and perhaps engineers – in the room, there is no free lunch, no room for magical thinking, and generally no place for the myth of “disposal.” We can only live sustainably with circularity – i.e., cradle to cradle, not cradle to grave. With few exceptions, once we generate waste, there really is no place for it to go where we can just “forget it.” Because it still exists, with us, in the essentially closed system that is the earth. Also, although our environmental laws in the United States generally do a pretty good job mitigating the harmful impacts of environmental waste, these laws fail regarding plastic wastes. Whether polluting our environment, like plastic waste, or injecting waste underground (maybe causing earthquakes), leaving it in outer space orbiting earth (destroying our satellites), or watching it accumulate on the dark side of the moon (really?), waste inherently risks harm we often cannot, or simply will not, anticipate. Remember asbestos cigarette filters and fake snow? We must do a better job eliminating waste by embracing sustainable development goals.
Now, back to plastic waste. We are confronted daily with news that the planet is saturated with plastic waste, including our air, land, rivers and oceans. And yet, over 50% of single use plastics are produced from resin manufactured by just 20 major resin producers internationally. And we know how we got here. Designed to protect and preserve, plastics do not degrade by natural processes in any meaningful timeframe. Single use and yet “forever” items are delivered to consumers’ hands for just a few moments’ use, while other plastic particles wash off as fibers released from synthetic fabrics, shed off tires as tire shred, and drop off painted surfaces as acrylic coating particulate. Then, when released to the environment, they are left on the ground, blown by the wind and carried by rivers to the ocean. In the ocean, plastic waste kills generations of sea life, because once consumed by an organism, it reemerges after the organism dies and turns to dust, free once more in the environment to kill again. And while plastics persist in the environment, they fracture into smaller pieces, creating microplastic (including nanoplastic, “MP/NP”). As microplastic continues to fracture, getting smaller and smaller, it poses threats to proper functioning of biological organisms throughout the biological scale, until – at the cellular level – depending on its size, shape, surface charging and polymer type, it can cause oxidative stress and unwind proteins. And throughout this process, plastics have been shown to leach additives while attracting and leaching chemicals already in the environment.
While consumers may beat themselves up about the amount of plastic waste they generate, it is actually quite difficult to completely avoid generating plastic waste– particularly in the United States, and especially during a pandemic. Consider the lack of feasible consumer alternatives to plastic fiber COVID-compliant masks and gloves, automobile tires, packaging, clothing, etc. Plastic is incorporated into so many consumer products, especially the products we rely on during a global pandemic, that without significant change, plastic waste seems inevitable.
With production and use of plastic so comprehensively integrated into consumer products that plastic is almost impossible to avoid, so cheap that the plastic is not recovered, and so inert that the plastic will not degrade, we have created a plastic web ensnarling consumers that we cannot escape. This web enables a global assembly line of plastic waste that has no place to go. Our planet is now a hoarder’s home filled with plastic which threatens all life on the planet. A global agreement is critical for the protection of the planet against the harmful effects of plastic items that are visible and especially those that are not. And now, with our resolution to make a resolution, it appears we may soon have such an agreement.
Consistent with the Biden Administration’s efforts to rejoin global efforts to protect the environment, such as reentering the Paris Agreement, the United States is now supporting the March 2, 2022 UN Resolution to End Plastic Pollution, standing firmly with France. This development is particularly important given the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) recognition, in its 2021 consensus paper, Reckoning with the U.S. Role in Global Ocean Plastic Pollution, that the United States is the largest contributor to the world’s plastic waste problem, and yet lacks sufficient environmental legal authority to effectively mitigate it. Specifically, NASEM recommended that the United States: (1) reduce solid waste generation overall; (2) conduct national marine debris shoreline surveys; (3) implement plastic pollution monitoring programs for coastal and inland water, and (4) create a “coherent, comprehensive, and crosscutting federal research and policy strategy” covering “the entire plastic life cycle” to reduce the U.S contribution of plastic waste to the environment. As recommended, this policy strategy would focus on “identifying, implementing, and assessing equitable and effective interventions.” Progress towards Recommendation No. 1 may be achieved through such devices as President Biden’s Executive Order 14057 (Dec. 8, 2021) providing for a 2021 Federal Sustainability Plan, and the EPA’s 2021 National Recycling Strategy, Part One of a Series on Building a Circular Economy for All. Recommendation Nos. 2 and 3 could possibly be approached with existing Clean Water Act authority and the Trash Free Waters Program, with possible assistance from litigation intended to achieve enforcement of existing legislation and regulation. This might include, for example, efforts by the Surfrider Foundation to compel EPA to require Hawaii to account for plastic pollution under the Clean Water Act.
In any case, NASEM’s Recommendations all inform the United States’ participation in the UN Resolution to End Plastic Pollution negotiations to develop the global treaty by 2024, and development of responsive national legislation. This will likely require additional research regarding plastic product production, distribution, plastic waste generation and management data, as well as environmental monitoring data, as recommended by the NASEM consensus paper.
The UN’s Resolution will build on prior initiatives addressing marine litter, from the Osaka Blue Ocean Vision, to the outcome of the 2021 Ministerial Conference on Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution, as well as the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and Disposal. The Resolution requests commencement of work during the second half of 2022 with the goal of completing its work by the end of 2024. While the Resolution expressly recognizes microplastics as “plastic pollution,” and refers to scope including the full lifecycle and transboundary impacts, the final scope of the agreement must still be negotiated among Member States. The Member States will need to consider perspectives from many stakeholders regarding the broad range of approaches to mitigation, including sustainable alternatives and technologies which call for international collaboration to develop and promote “sustainable design of products and materials so that they can be reused, remanufactured, or recycled.”
Ms. Inger Anderson, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme discusses the basic structure and elements for implementation and compliance as conceptually following Article 15 of the Minamata Convention (mitigating global mercury pollution). Proposals being considered cover all sources of plastic pollution “from source to sea,” including “all sources of pollution along the whole lifecycle – from production through disposal and reduction of the leakage of existing plastic currently in the global ecosystem.” Key to these negotiations will be consideration of “the different types of plastics and additives within them” to ensure appropriate consideration of safety issues arising from recycling and how best to support a circular plastics economy. Additional significant considerations for Member States include: how best to set goals, and plan for implementation, how to measure and report progress, and address noncompliance. Lessons learned from the European Union, France, and other nations that have already adopted plastic waste mitigation authority should be helpful in this process, which will consider eliminating single-use plastics and incorporating technological innovations in plastic alternatives and resource recovery (including recycling).
Now the hard work begins. Finally! The ACOEL is engaged in projects designed to mitigate plastic waste, working with entities including the Global Council for Science and Environment, (along with our French colleagues in science and law, culminating in an International Summit on Plastic Pollution April 5 and 6, 2022) and the Engineers for Sustainable Engineering Solutions (with projects around the world turning environmental waste plastic into polyfuel). More to come from ACOEL regarding plastic waste mitigation as we contribute to international progress on the international agreement to end plastic pollution and removing plastic waste from the environment.