While tragic world events make all the news seem bad, there was some good news in the past 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 (collaborating partners), approved a landmark UN resolution for “End plastic pollution and forge a legally binding international agreement by the end of 2024.”
But before preaching about plastic waste, the mood lightened by this glimmer of hope, allow me to quickly recall a fundamental point: the law of conservation of mass, which recognizes that matter (with its specific mass) can change shape, but before and after the change, the mass remains the same. This means that, for the adults – and perhaps the engineers – present in the room, there is no free lunch, no place for wishful thinking, and generally no place for the myth of “the elimination”. We can only live sustainably with circularity – that is, cradle to cradle, not cradle to grave. With few exceptions, once we produce waste, there’s really nowhere to go where we can just “forget” it. Because it still exists, with us, in the essentially closed system that is the earth. Additionally, while our environmental laws in the United States are generally quite successful in mitigating the harmful effects of environmental waste, these laws fall short when it comes to plastic waste. Whether it’s polluting our environment, such as plastic waste, or injecting waste underground (possibly causing earthquakes), leaving it in space orbiting the Earth (destroy our satellites), or watching it build up on the dark side of the moon (really?), waste inherently risks causing harm that we often cannot anticipate or simply do not want to anticipate. Remember asbestos cigarette filters and fake snow? We need to get rid of waste better by adopting sustainable development goals.
Now back to plastic waste. We are faced daily with news that the planet is saturated with plastic waste, including our air, Earth, rivers and oceans. And yet, more than 50% of single-use plastics are produced from resin made by only 20 major resin producers internationally. And we know how we got here. Designed to protect and preserve, plastics do not degrade through natural processes under any circumstances. significant delay. Single-use yet “forever” items are delivered to consumers’ hands for use only for a few moments, while other plastic particles wash away as fibers released from synthetic fabrics, come off tires as tire shredders and deposit painted surfaces as an acrylic coating. particulate. Then, when released into 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 marine life because once consumed by an organism, it reappears after the organism dies and turns to dust, once again free in the environment to kill at new. And as plastics persist in the environment, they fracture into smaller pieces, creating microplastics (including nanoplastics, “MP/NP”). As microplastic continues to fracture, becoming smaller and smaller, it threatens the proper functioning of biological organisms across the biological scale, until – at the cellular level – depending on its size, shape , its surface charge and type of polymer, it can cause oxidative stress and relax proteins. And throughout this process, plastics have been shown to leaching additives while attracting and leaching chemicals already present in the environment.
While consumers may blame themselves for the amount of plastic waste they generate, it’s actually quite difficult to completely avoid generating plastic waste, especially in the United States, and especially during a pandemic. Consider the lack of feasible consumer alternatives to COVID-compliant plastic fiber 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 plastic production and use so completely integrated into consumer products that avoiding plastic is almost impossible, so cheap that plastic is not reclaimed, and so inert that it does not degrade, we have created a web of plastic bewitching consumers that we cannot escape. This network enables a global assembly line of plastic waste that has nowhere to go. Our planet is now home to a plastic-filled hoarder that threatens all life on the planet. A global agreement is essential for the protection of the planet against the harmful effects of visible plastic objects and especially those which are not. And now, with our resolve to make a resolution, it looks like we may soon have such an agreement.
In line with the Biden administration’s efforts to join global efforts to protect the environment, such as rejoin the Paris agreementUS now supports March 2, 2022 UN resolution to end plastic pollution, in solidarity with France. This development is particularly significant given the recognition of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM), in its 2021 consensus document, Considering the role of the United States in global plastic pollution of the oceans, that the United States is the largest contributor to the global plastic waste problem, yet it lacks sufficient environmental legal authority to effectively mitigate it. Specifically, NASEM recommended that the United States: (1) globally reduce the generation of solid waste; (2) conduct national shoreline marine debris surveys; (3) implement plastic pollution monitoring programs for coastal and inland waters, and (4) create a “coherent, comprehensive, and cross-cutting federal research and policy strategy” covering “the entire life cycle of the plastic” to reduce the US contribution of plastic waste to the environment. As recommended, this policy strategy would focus on “the identification, implementation and evaluation of equitable and effective interventions”. Progress towards Recommendation #1 can be made through devices like President Biden Executive Order 14057 (December 8, 2021) providing a Federal Plan for Sustainable Development 2021and the EPA National Recycling Strategy 2021, part one of a series on building a circular economy for all. Recommendations 2 and 3 could possibly be addressed with the existing authority of the Clean Water Act and the Waste-Free Water Programwith the possible help of litigation seeking compulsory execution of the laws and regulations in force. This could include, for example, efforts by the Surfrider Foundation to compel the EPA to require Hawaii to report plastic pollution under the Clean Water Act.
In any case, the recommendations of NASEM all provide information on the participation of the United States in the UN resolution to end plastic pollution negotiations to develop the global treaty by 2024 and development of appropriate national legislation. This will likely require additional research regarding data on the production, distribution, generation and management of plastic waste, as well as environmental monitoring data, as recommended by the NASEM consensus document.
The UN resolution will build on previous initiatives to tackle marine litter, from the Osaka Blue Ocean Vision, to the outcomes of the 2021 Ministerial Conference on Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution, as well as the Convention of Basel on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Disposal. The resolution calls for work to begin in the second half of 2022 with the aim of completing its work by the end of 2024. While the resolution expressly recognizes microplastics as “plastic pollution” and refers to the scope, including full life cycle and cross-border impacts, the final scope of the agreement has yet to be negotiated between member states. Member States will need to take into account the views of many stakeholders regarding the wide range of mitigation approaches, including sustainable alternatives and technologies that 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 United Nations Environment Program discusses the basic structure and elements of implementation and compliance in accordance with Article 15 of the Minamata Convention (Global Mercury Pollution Mitigation). The proposals under consideration cover all sources of plastic pollution “from source to sea”, including “all sources of pollution throughout the life cycle – from production to elimination and reduction of plastic leakage currently existing in the global ecosystem”. Key to these negotiations will be consideration of “different types of plastics and the additives they contain” to ensure proper consideration of safety issues arising from recycling and how best to support a circular plastics economy. . Other important considerations for Member States include: how best to set targets and plan for their implementation, how to measure and report on progress, and how to deal with non-compliance. Lessons learned from the European Union, France and other countries 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. Ultimately! ACOEL is engaged in projects aimed at reducing plastic waste, in collaboration with entities such as World Council for Science and the Environment(with our French colleagues in science and law, culminating with an International Summit on Plastic Pollution on April 5 and 6, 2022) and the Engineers for Sustainable Engineering Solutions (with projects around the world turning environmental plastic waste into flex fuel). More to come from ACOEL regarding plastic waste mitigation as we contribute to international progress on the international agreement to end plastic pollution and eliminate plastic waste from the environment.
Photo credit: picture: UNEP/Shawn Heinrichs