The end of the explosion in plastic production could be in sight
Plastics are everywhere: we wrap our food in it, our clothes are woven out of it and billions of products are made of it. These products are often designed to exploit plastic’s most well-known properties – it’s cheap and versatile.
Every year, 300 million tonnes of plastic is created but if you think there is a lot of plastic in your life right now, imagine what living in 2060 will be like, when plastic production is forecast to triple. But this doesn’t have to be the case, and we’re hopeful that a new international agreement could stem the tide.
The problem with plastic
Despite the fact that plastic can be found in every part of our lives, there is mounting evidence that it is extremely harmful. It’s now well known that plastic pollution is a problem for the environment. Although many plastic products are thrown away after a single use, the material itself survives for hundreds of years. Plastic litter covers our towns and countryside and clogs up our oceans. Even when plastic breaks down, the resulting microplastics can go on polluting for years to come.
There are also less visible ways in which plastic damages our lives. Plastics are intertwined with the climate crisis because 99% of plastics are made from fossil fuels – this means that producing plastic is damaging the planet, not just throwing it away.
There’s also growing evidence about the impact of plastics on our health. 7,000 potentially harmful chemicals have been found in plastics in products such as packaging (including food contact materials), toys, textiles, furniture, building materials, medical devices, personal care and household cleaning products. Exposure to these chemicals can cause neurological and hormonal conditions and cancers.
The global plastics production system deepens existing injustices that disproportionately harm Indigenous, black, brown and low-income communities. Most plastics are used in rich countries but then the rubbish is sent to countries in the Global South to be dealt with by unofficial waste pickers who are vulnerable to exploitation. There is evidence of child labour, poisonous chemical exposure, and worker exploitation.
The Global Plastics Treaty
The world is slowly waking up to the fact that we are living in a plastics crisis. In November 2022, countries around the world began negotiating on a legally binding Global Plastics Treaty to end plastic pollution. A series of international meetings are happening in the lead up to the final agreement expected by the end of 2024. It has the potential to be a landmark success in environmental diplomacy.
The draft treaty tackles the whole lifecycle of plastics from design and production to use and disposal, which is needed to address the scale and complexity of the issue. It recognises that the chemical impact of plastics must be addressed. Most of the UN Member States are supporting the treaty and the process has brought together Indigenous people, workers, trade unions, waste pickers, environmental groups and scientists.
Unfortunately, there are still concerns that need to be overcome. The negotiations have involved the plastics industry, including oil and gas lobbyists, and the promising start to the treaty is beginning to be overshadowed by industry involvement. At the last round of negotiations, in June of this year, industry was accused of deliberately slowing down the process to limit what could be agreed.
Community groups and environmental organisations are calling for the Global Plastics Treaty to include requirements for environmental justice, a just transition for waste pickers and others and to find solutions to the plastic crisis which does no harm to the climate, biodiversity or human health. This is currently being overlooked but it is essential to create a fairer future.
The Montreal protocol – the first treaty to be ratified by every country on Earth – has phased out the use of nearly 100 substances that attack the planet’s protective ozone. If it’s successful, the impact of the Global Plastics Treaty could be as significant.
The UK is part of a coalition of over 50 governments which are calling for an ambitious Global Plastics Treaty. However, this commitment needs to be backed by action which can start right now. Scotland needs to play its part in this. The petrochemical giant, INEOS, based in Grangemouth, is Europe’s top producer of ethelyne, which is used in making more than half of plastic and petrochemical products, including single use plastics. We urgently need a plan to phase out plastic production and convert the Grangemouth site to the green industries of the future, supporting workers and the local community in the process as part of a just transition.
A new law which aims to create a circular economy to make material use more sustainable has just been introduced to the Scottish Parliament. This is an important opportunity to create a strong framework to reduce the amount of plastic and other materials Scotland uses and to take responsibility for impact of Scotland’s plastic consumption overseas. We need to regulate producers to design products from lower carbon materials, that are built to last and be easily repairable.
In Scotland, we should be aiming for a future which is free from the harm that plastic does to the environment, to our bodies and to people across the world. We can strengthen global efforts to do this by creating the change we want to see here in Scotland.
We need the new circular economy law to be as strong as possible. If you want to get involved in pushing for this, you can find out how to do so here.