Each one of us may be ingesting 5 grams of plastic a week – the equivalent of a credit card – through common foods and beverages. The statistics are harrowing. By 2050 our ocean could contain more plastic than fish by weight. And, just because you can’t see microplastics doesn’t mean they’re not harmful. They can cause cancers, asthma, infertility, diabetes and other diseases. Microplastics are even in our blood.
With plastic waste projected to triple by 2060, how many more credit cards will we be eating soon?
The UN Global Plastics Treaty is a historic opportunity to address this global crisis and create a more sustainable future for all. As world leaders head to the third session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3) in Nairobi, it is important to drop outdated concepts and redefine what sustainable really means for plastic and its true alternatives.
As researchers and innovators in sustainability, we believe that the international plastics agenda can be ambitious but straightforward by adhering to three simple principles: reduction, honesty and transparency.
First, we must resist the recycling myth and instead remain laser-focused on plastic reduction.
Only 9% of plastics are recycled. Despite that little recycling symbol on the bottom of most plastic products, many are simply not recyclable and, even when they are recycled, up to 13% of them end up in the environment as microplastics. In fact, the US Environmental Protection Agency declared the symbol “deceptive and misleading” and the US Government is considering prohibiting its broad use. Governments worldwide must take this first step to ensure consumers are properly informed.
Similarly, we must stop using the term "circular economy for plastics," which is the theme of the pending UN Plastics Treaty. It is synonymous with recycling for many. A 'low plastic economy' is a better goal. While recycled and upcycled products have a role, items recyclable mostly in theory should no longer be celebrated.
Of course, systematic change requires more than altering symbols and words. To avoid a massive build-up of plastic in the environment, plastic agendas should have one key metric: eliminate plastics wherever possible. All other plastic-related targets should be secondary. This summer, New York City prohibited single-use plastics in food deliveries, and from October 2023, a similar ban in the UK took effect. Even though 120 countries have issued some bans, their effect is minimal because banned items, such as plastic bags, constitute a tiny portion of plastics. Both governments and companies should target the reduction of plastics well beyond plastic bags and forks.
Second, we must implement plastic reduction honestly.
The market is flooded with plastics and bioplastics claiming to be sustainable, biodegradable or compostable. In reality, many require commercial facilities and, just like theoretically recyclable items, do not reach them; others create microplastics. Often products that are designed to look sustainable in reality are not. For example, not many realize that cardboard takeout containers are often lined with wax or plastic to prevent leakage. Governments should penalize these misleading practices and we call on companies to shift to truly sustainable alternatives.
Nature’s example of a single-use item is fruit. Governments and businesses need to incentivize innovation in materials that biodegrade quickly without requiring commercial facilities or creating microplastics. For example, the $1.2 million Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize recently announced its three winners who are all using seaweed to design sustainable, biologically degradable alternatives to thin-film plastic. One of the winners of the award, Notpla, has established the Natural Polymers Group, a network of innovators who are creating nature-based substitutes to plastic to address the global issue of plastic pollution. Ahead of the upcoming UN plastic treaty negotiation, the group is calling for UN Treaty makers to recognize natural polymer materials as a key tool in the fight against plastic and to be included in its definition for non-plastic substitutes.
And, finally, we must dramatically increase transparency in measuring results.
We need to be acutely aware of 'green inflation' - the cost of delay in addressing environmental issues. The UN Environment Programme determined that the cost of inaction is double the cost of combating plastic waste ($113 v. $65 billion per year). Governments’ and companies’ delaying tactics need to stop.
Imagine a race where each runner sets their own starting time and distance and does not report their speed. Even under the long-awaited Sustainability Standards, adopted in the summer of 2023, companies establish their own metrics. Instead, a comparison to a benchmark from a common starting point to a common finish line would make the reported information more meaningful to the markets. Let’s start the race and make it transparent.
In conclusion, we propose that the international community, governments and companies focus on reducing plastic production, rather than relying on recycling. We can do this by creating and investing in true, natural alternatives to plastics and maintaining transparent measurements of our progress.
Plastic in the ocean and the human blood is already emerging as our new reality. Our urgent action will help prevent the plastic nightmare from coming true.