Plastic is climate change in a bottle, so let’s put a cap on it

Plastic pollution and climate change have common culprits – and similar solutions.

The penultimate round of negotiations for a global pact against plastic ended yesterday in Ottawa. Nearly 200 countries agree that a treaty should tackle plastic pollution at every stage of its existence, from oil rigs and refineries to factories, shops and homes. But when Rwanda and Peru proposed reducing the amount of plastic produced worldwide by 40% over the next fifteen years, UN negotiations stalled.

This gridlock has been caused, at least in part, by the same companies holding back climate action: fossil fuel companies and their petrochemical partners.

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Most plastics come from fossil fuels. Oil and gas companies extract these fuels and petrochemical companies refine and synthesize plastic from them. Reports indicate that the number of lobbyists representing both sectors in the negotiations is increasing.

Recycled lobbying tactics

According to a recent study, reducing plastic production is the most effective way to reduce pollution. However, because a proposal to phase out production did not gain sufficient support in Ottawa, it is unclear what the deal – expected later this year – will ultimately look like.

“Will it be ambitious, with strict binding measures addressing all stages of the plastics life cycle (including the ‘upstream’ stages associated with resource extraction, production and processing)?” ask Antaya March, Cressida Bowyer and Steve Fletcher, researchers studying the plastic waste epidemic at the University of Portsmouth.

“Or will it be a weaker treaty, with voluntary and country-led measures focusing mainly on waste management and pollution prevention (the ‘downstream’ phases)?”

Read more: A global plastics treaty is being negotiated in Ottawa this week – here’s the latest news

Profit-oriented petrochemical companies have long insisted that downstream strategies, such as ramping up recycling, are the best way to manage plastic waste. Research showed this was unfair: plastic manufacturers knew more than thirty years ago that recycling was complicated, expensive and ineffective – despite what their marketing departments said.

Today, the global recycling system is a mess, says Kutoma Wakunuma, associate professor of information systems at De Montfort University:

“While plastic waste can be seen as a trade between developed and developing countries, allowing the latter to be paid in return for dealing with that waste, this trade is not an equivalent trade.”

Read more: Plastic waste is harming women in developing countries – but there are ways to stop it

Wakunuma describes how waste pickers in several African countries sift imported waste from wealthier countries for plastic bottles and other recyclable items. These workers, mainly women, can be paid four pence per kilogram for what they manage to save, she says.

A child sifts through plastic in a garbage dump.
Waste pickers toil for a pittance under appalling conditions.
Tinnakorn Jorruang/Shutterstock

“And that waste is sometimes burned instead of recycled. In 2020, 40% of the UK’s plastic waste was sent to Turkey, where some of it was not recycled but illegally dumped and burned.”

Two billion people worldwide have no dedicated waste collection services. According to waste management experts Costas Velis and Ed Cook from the University of Leeds, many of them breathe in toxic fumes produced by the open burning of plastic. This is a serious health crisis that is being overlooked, they say.

Read more: Health crisis: Up to a billion tons of waste could be burned in the open every year

Developing countries’ recycling facilities are overwhelmed. Yet oil companies see these places – where environmental regulations tend to be weaker – as promising markets for more single-use plastics that are cheap and difficult to recycle, says Deirdre McKay, a reader in geography and environmental politics at Keele University.

Read more: The fossil fuel industry sees the future in hard-to-recycle plastic

Turn off the taps

Fossil fuels and petrochemicals have a long history: the first synthetic chemicals were extracted from coal. In the future, global demand for oil and gas will decline as more buildings and vehicles run on renewable electricity – but emissions will remain high if fossil fuel companies are allowed to continue pouring their money into making plastics, experts say sustainability from the sector, Fredric Bauer (Lund University). ) and Tobias Dan Nielsen (IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute).

Read more: Oil companies are pouring money into fossil fuel production at record speed – new research

Some solutions to plastic waste and climate change are the same. Such as removing fossil fuel subsidies, which keep plastic production (and fossil fuel extraction) artificially cheap.

Read more: Fossil fuel subsidies amount to hundreds of billions of dollars a year – here’s how to get rid of them

More broadly, evidence supports the idea of ​​phasing out plastic production to combat rising pollution – and something similar applies to climate change.

An industrial scene.
Plastic production generates enormous amounts of greenhouse gases that warm the climate.
Mountain Treks/Shutterstock

“There is a wealth of scientific evidence showing that a phase-out of fossil fuels will be essential for curbing the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change,” said Steve Pye, associate professor of energy systems at UCL.

“Since no new fields need to be developed, global oil and gas production should decline.”

Read more: COP28 president is wrong – science clearly shows fossil fuels must go (and fast)

A legally binding agreement aimed at curbing plastic production could be the best outcome of the final summit in Busan, South Korea at the end of November. But even this may not deter countries and companies that make a lot of money from plastic. With equivalent climate legislation, “legally binding” in practice means campaigners will have to take governments and companies to court for years to get them to keep their promises, says Rebecca Willis, a governance expert at Lancaster University.

Read more: Britain’s Climate Change Act, once the envy of the world, is facing a stress test

At the very least, campaigners on both plastic waste and climate change can benefit from joining their efforts.

“The environment appears to be drowning in plastic for the same reason that global temperatures continue to rise,” says McKay. “Fossil fuels have remained cheap and plentiful.”