Scientists Call For Global Plastics Treaty as Evidence of Health Impacts Mounts
Most plastics that are produced end up in landfills in poorer countries.

Human health is in grave danger because of plastics across their entire lifecycle, a new study has found. The study, conducted by an international consortium of scientists, has pointed out that from production to disposal, plastics are bad news. 

The team of scientists, led by the Boston College Observatory on Planetary Health, Australia’s Minderoo Foundation and the Centre Scientifique de Monaco, called for a strong and comprehensive global plastics treaty to be adopted as soon as possible, to put the world on track to end plastic pollution by 2040. 

The study, published in the journal Annals of Global Public Health on Tuesday, stated that the current patterns of producing, using and disposing of plastics are leading to snowballing impacts on health from the womb to old age.  

“It is now clear that current patterns of plastic production, use, and disposal are not sustainable and are responsible for significant harms to human health, the environment, and the economy as well as for deep societal injustices”, stated an editorial accompanying the report. 

Along with pushing for the expedited adoption of a global plastics treaty, the study also recommends that a Permanent Science Policy Advisory Body be created to guide the implementation of the treaty. 

“The main priorities of this body would be to guide member states and other stakeholders in evaluating which solutions are most effective in reducing plastic consumption, enhancing plastic waste recovery and recycling, and curbing the generation of plastic waste,” the study’s authors added. 

Impacts on health from cradle to grave

That plastics cause harm to the planet is not news. However, this is the first study to look in detail into the dangers to human health from plastics at every stage of production, use and disposal. Among the key findings:  

  • Of the more than 10,000 materials used in plastics production, some 1,254 pose high health concerns. Those include toxic, mutagenic and carcinogenic monomers – of which PVC is perhaps best known, but there are many others.
  • At the use stage, some 63 of the more than 90 chemicals associated with plastics packaging rank in the highest category for human health. Many of the chemicals used in food packaging can leach out onto food, leading to human exposures.
  • Finally, at disposal stage, those same chemical components or additives can be released or leached out during recycling and recovery processes, the report found.  And most of the world’s plastics are not recovered at all – they are simply dumped into landfills, incincerated or shipped elsewhere – contaminating soils, fresh water aquifers, oceans and fisheries – with further ecosystem and health impacts.

“This is the first analysis to look at hazards to human health caused by plastics across their entire life cycle – cradle to grave – beginning with the extraction of the coal, oil and gas from which nearly all plastics are made, through production and use, and on to the point where plastic wastes are thrown into landfills, dumped into the ocean or shipped overseas,” Dr Philip Landrigan, director of the Program on Global Public Health and the Common Good at the Boston College Observatory on Planetary Health and the study’s lead author explained in a press release

A range of chemicals are used, present and released throughout the life cycle of plastics.

Occupational health hazards, premature births and birth defects

Workers involved in plastics production suffer higher mortality from a range of causes from traumatic injury to lung cancer to interstitial lung disease. They are also highly likely to contract diseases like mesothelioma, angiosarcoma, breast cancer and decreased fertility. 

But plastics also cause a variety of health impacts across the population, from pregnancy and early childhood to older ages.  

“Because of the exquisite sensitivity of early development to hazardous chemicals and children’s unique patterns of exposure, plastic-associated exposures are linked to increased risks of prematurity, stillbirth, low birth weight, birth defects of the reproductive organs, neurodevelopmental impairment, impaired lung growth, and childhood cancer,” the study pointed out.  

“Early-life exposures to plastic-associated chemicals also increase the risk of multiple non-communicable diseases later in life.”

Massive adverse enviornmental, economic and social justice impacts

Elaborating on the production cycle of plastics, the scientists also summed up the massive adverse environmental, economic, human health and social justice impact that prolonged plastic use creates. 

Plastics are produced from coal, oil or gas, in an energy intensive process. The current modes of plastic disposal are highly inefficient. 

A wall made of plastic waste in Singapore.

“Plastic disposal is highly inefficient, with recovery and recycling rates below 10% globally,” the study pointed out. “The result is that an estimated 22 megatonnes of plastic waste enters the environment each year, much of it single-use plastic and are added to the more than 6 gigatons of plastic waste that have accumulated since 1950.”

Apart from causing widespread pollution across terrestrial, aquatic and atmospheric environments globally, the reckless use of plastics causes significant economic costs. 

“We estimate that, in 2015, the health-related costs of plastic production exceeded $250 billion globally, and that in the USA alone the health costs of disease and disability caused by the plastic-associated chemicals PBDE, BPA and DEHP exceeded $920 billion”.

Around 90% of the plastics produced are not recycled or reused, and often end up in landfills in poorer countries. This adversely affects people who are already vulnerable and had nothing to do with creating the plastics crisis and lack the power and resources needed to address it. 

“Plastics’ harmful impacts across its life cycle are most keenly felt in the Global South, in small island states, and in disenfranchised areas in the Global North,” the study said. “Social and environmental justice principles require reversal of these inequitable burdens to ensure that no group bears a disproportionate share of plastics’ negative impacts and that those who benefit economically from plastic bear their fair share of its currently externalized costs”. 

Global Plastics Treaty

The adoption of the resolution receives a standing ovation from the delegates present in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2022.

In 2022, Heads of State, Ministers of environment and other representatives from UN Member States at the fifth United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, approved a resolution to draft a Global Plastics Treaty by the end of 2024. This agreement on addressing the pollution caused by plastics would be internationally binding. 

“And as we embark on this journey, let us be clear that the agreement will only truly count if it has clear provisions that are legally binding, as the resolution states,” Inger Andersen, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) remarked after the resolution was passed. According to UNEP, plastics will account for 20% of oil and gas consumption by 2050. 

“It will only count if it adopts a full life-cycle approach – stretching from design to production to circularity to reducing, managing and preventing waste.”

Switzerland and Ecuador reiterated the importance of a global plastics treaty in Davos in January 2023, in the world’s journey to end plastic pollution. 

While the treaty is currently under negotiations, it is expected that the powerful oil and gas producers will oppose the creation of a comprehensive treaty with teeth. 

The first session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) took place from 28 November to 2 December, 2022 in Uruguay. The second session of the INC is scheduled to take place in Paris from 29 May, 2023 to 2 June, 2023. 

“Our report is intended to inform the Treaty negotiations. The Global Plastics Treaty is still two to three years away. But it will resonate with other treaties, including the agreement reached earlier this month known as the Oceans Treaty,” Landrigan said. 

The Permanent Science Policy Advisory Board, recommended by the study, will aim to inform the work of the treaty by arming the negotiators and participants with scientific evidence. 

“All big global agreements, or treaties, need scientific support. They need access to individuals with expertise to make sure the treaty reflects the most recent science. These treaties are never static, they must continually be updated to reflect the best current knowledge”. 

Image Credits: Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash, The Minderoo-Monaco Commission on Plastics and Human Health, Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash, UNEP.

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