Plastic bottles packed together in a recycling plant.Imago/ZUMA

Primarily reported by Grist and is replicated here as part of the Climate Desk partnership.

While you go through this statement—let’s say, within four ticks of the clock—the globe churns out nearly 60 metric tons of plastic, almost solely sourced from fossil fuels. That’s roughly 53,000 metric tons per hour, 1.3 million metric tons daily, or 460 million metric tons annually. These statistics are driving extensive and escalating pollution of the oceans, rivers, and the land with plastic garbage.

In March 2022, the 193 member states of the United Nations convened in Nairobi, Kenya, and committed to take action. They vowed to deliberate on a treaty to “halt plastic pollution,” aiming to present a finalized version by 2025. The most ambitious notion put forth by member states during the ongoing negotiation sessions would demand petrochemical corporations to scale back their substantial production by imposing a cap on global plastic manufacturing.

Considering the dire implications this would have for fossil fuel and chemical enterprises, one might anticipate them to strongly oppose the treaty. However, they profess to back the pact. In fact, they are actively “advocating for” it, as stated by a few industry associations. The American Chemistry Council has consistently shown support for advancements in the treaty talks, while an executive from the International Council of Chemical Associations revealed to Plastics Today in April that the sector is “completely dedicated” to backing an accord.

Even though plastic manufacturers admit that pollution is a severe issue, they argue against diminishing the production and utilization of their merchandise.

So, what are plastic manufacturers actually seeking from the treaty? To address this query, Grist scrutinized numerous public declarations and policy papers from five leading petrochemical industry trade bodies around the globe, and two specific industry associations. These records comprised of press releases in response to treaty negotiations and extensive position papers outlining the industry’s roadmap to a “planet free from waste.”

A large portion of what these associations have released is ambiguous—many documents call for “objectives,” for instance, without specifying the specifics. Grist reached out to all the groups for elucidation, but only two consented to answer queries regarding the policies they advocate.

What we discovered is that, although falling short of the desires of so-called “high-ambition” nations and advocacy groups within the treaty, the industry groups’ suggestions to fortify recycling and waste collection could bring about a considerable reduction in mismanaged plastic waste—despite the absence of a restriction on plastic output. According to a policy evaluation tool developed by scholars at the University of California, the elements of the treaty supported by industry groups collectively could slash global plastic pollution by 43 million metric tons annually by 2050—a 36 percent drop from projections based on the status quo.

Conversely, a practical production ceiling could alone lessen annual pollution by 48 million metric tons. Omitting a production cap from the treaty will make it notably challenging to rein in plastic pollution, remarked Douglas McCauley, an associate professor of biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and one of the architects of the policy tool. “It implies a pressing need to enhance the ambition of other required policies,” he revealed to Grist.

These statistics hold significance, as the influence of the plastic industry over the treaty negotiations appears to be strengthening. During the recent negotiation session—convened in Ottawa, Canada, towards the end of April—nearly 200 petrochemical and fossil fuel lobbyists registered to participate. This count surpassed the prior session by 37 individuals, surpassing the representatives from European Union member states.

Simultaneously, several delegations advocated solutions in alignment with the industry’s perspective. Malaysia cautioned about the unintended economic repercussions of constraining plastic manufacturing, and India suggested that the treaty should prioritize pollution while acknowledging the utility of plastics in modern society. Given the sway of the plastics sector and the inclination of international discussions to cater to the least resistant position, it’s plausible that the treaty will predominantly echo these priorities.

Expanding the horizons of comprehension regarding the stance of the business sector on the plastics agreement necessitates a grasp of how plastic manufacturers perceive the ongoing crisis associated with plastics. While they acknowledge that pollution poses a significant challenge, they do not advocate for curtailing the production and utilization of plastic by society. Undeniably, plastics offer a wide array of advantages. They are cost-effective, lightweight, and extensively employed in essential industries such as renewable energy and healthcare—characterized by their “unsurpassed characteristics and adaptability that have fostered remarkable advancements enabling resource conservation and fostering the feasibility of various facets of life,” as articulated by the Plastics Industry Association. America’s Plastic Producers, a segment of the American Chemistry Council, assert that policymakers must ensure the longevity of the material “within our economic system and outside of our natural surroundings.”

According to business associations, the strategy to achieve this objective involves “plastics circularity,” a principle aimed at sustaining the usage of the material for as long as feasible before its disposal. Generally, this entails enhancing recycling efforts. However, circularity can also encompass the establishment of expanded systems enabling the reuse of plastic or improved infrastructures for waste collection. From the perspective of plastic manufacturers, the role of the plastic agreement should be to engender an increase in circularity while preserving the societal and economic advantages derived from plastic commodities.

Arguably, the primary hurdle encountered by circularity advocates is the dismal recycling rate of plastic. Currently, merely approximately 9 percent of all produced plastic is recycled globally; the remaining portion is disposed of in landfills, incinerated, or contributes to litter. Moreover, in most scenarios, the material can only be reprocessed once or twice—if at all—before being “downcycled” into inferior-quality items like rugs. While certain specialists deem it unfeasible to significantly enhance plastic recycling due to technological and economic constraints, plastic manufacturers maintain a contrary stance. Indeed, the viability of plastics circularity hinges on the prospect of an enhanced recycling rate.

Granules of plastic are notoriously prone to seeping into aquatic environments from manufacturing facilities or maritime vessels. In Europe, the equivalent of 20 truckloads escapes into the ecosystem daily.

With that objective in sight, various business consortiums—including the World Plastic Council, self-distinguished as the “global advocate of the plastics sector”—are advocating for “compulsory minimum recycling thresholds” within the framework of the agreement, alongside elevated objectives regarding the utilization of recycled constituents in novel commodities.

This proposition implies that nations, regions, or other governing bodies would establish legally binding quotas for the proportion of plastic recycled within their jurisdictions and subsequently processed into fresh goods. Typically, plastic manufacturers approve of targets formulated on a local or national scale, differentiated based on the plastic type, given that some variants are more challenging to recycle than others.

Business organizations also support recycling benchmarks that are “technologically agnostic,” such that they encompass plastics processed through contentious “chemical recycling” methodologies. Despite the fact that these methodologies are not currently efficient on a large scale, the industry predicts a future where they could dismantle mixed post-consumer plastic into their elemental polymers utilizing elevated temperatures and pressure, subsequently converting these polymers back into fresh plastic commodities. Environmental specialists oppose chemical recycling, highlighting evidence indicating that it is predominantly utilized to incinerate plastics or transform them into fuel sources.

The tandem policies—pertaining to plastic recycling and recycled constituents—could potentially reinforce each other, with the latter fostering a more stable market for the recycled materials generated by the former. In correspondence via email with Grist, Ross Eisenberg, president of America’s Plastic Producers, expressed that recycling quotas and objectives related to recycled constituents would “generate demand indications and imbue companies with increased assurance to invest further in a circular economy, ensuring that a greater proportion of plastic products are either reused or regenerated into novel plastic commodities.”

As per Plastics Europe, the principal plastic trade association in the continent, a surge in the recycling rate would diminish the reliance of nations on fossil fuels employed in the production of primary plastics.

Plastics Europe and the World Plastic Council declined interview requests for this piece. They refrained from addressing queries regarding their backing of specific recycling and recycled constituent thresholds, notwithstanding Plastics Europe’s avowal of endorsing “compulsory data and report stipulations for all facets of the plastics system life cycle.” In the United States, America’s Plastic Producers advocate for a 30 percent recycled constituent prerequisite in plastic packaging by 2030, alongside an aspiration for 100 percent of plastic packaging to be “reclaimed, recycled, or regenerated by 2040.”

Supplementary strategies endorsed by business associations could indirectly catalyze a surge in the plastic recycling rate by procuring funds for recycling infrastructures. These strategies frequently encompass frameworks for “extended producer responsibility,” abbreviated as EPR, mandating that enterprises engaged in the manufacture and sale of plastics contribute to the financing of waste collection and recycling initiatives targeting the waste produced by them, in addition to the remediation of prevailing plastic pollution.

Every business coalition contacted by Grist affirms support for EPR as an integral component of the agreement, although some distinctly outline in their policy documents that such initiatives ought to be implemented at the local or national level, rather than globally. Certain groups, including theThe American Chemistry Council and a coalition of global partners for plastics circularity—backed by a dozen plastics associations and companies—also vaguely advocate for additional funding through “public-private partnerships and blended finance.”

Regarding plastic packaging, which constitutes approximately 36 percent of worldwide plastic production, a European industry group known as the Circular Economy for Flexible Packaging endorses “legislation on product design” to facilitate recycling. While not endorsing specific design components, it highlights proposals by the Consumer Goods Forum, an industry network of consumer product retailers and manufacturers.

In order to accomplish climate objectives, certain environmental organizations suggest that global plastic production should be reduced by 12 to 17 percent annually, commencing in 2024.

These proposals encompass suggestions like opting for clear plastics instead of colored ones, reducing the unnecessary use of plastic wrapping, and verifying that any adhesives or inks applied to plastic packaging don’t hinder recyclability. Plastics Europe also promotes technical and design criteria for biodegradable and compostable plastics aimed at supplanting those derived from fossil fuels.

Various groups also express their support for objectives centered around “pellet containment,” which pertains to the small plastic fragments melted to form larger objects. These pellets are infamous for spilling from manufacturing sites or cargo vessels into water bodies; in Europe, 20 truckloadsOperation Clean Sweep

Nonetheless, despite its inception in 1991, Operation Clean Sweep has yet to attain its objective; some policymakers have recently advocated for more stringent regulations concerning plastic pellet loss.

Apart from restricting plastic production, many national representatives—alongside scientists and environmental groups—hope for the treaty to prohibit or limit some of the most troublesome plastic polymers and certain chemicals employed in plastics. These are labeled as “chemicals and polymers of concern,” denoting those with the lowest recyclability or posing the highest risks to human health and the environment. Potential candidates include polyvinyl chloride, commonly used in water conduits, upholstery, toys, and other applications; expanded polystyrene (EPS), the foam plastic frequently found in takeout containers; and endocrine-disrupting compounds like phthalates, bisphenols, and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

The notion of pinpointing problematic chemicals and polymers within the plastics treaty garners widespread support; attendees at the negotiations note that it represents a significant area of agreement among the delegates. Industry entities are also in favor, but only of a specific method. As per the World Plastics Council, the treaty shouldn’t feature “arbitrary bans or restrictions on substances or materials,” but should instead implement regulations based on the “essential use and societal value” of specific plastic types.

For instance, certain polystyrene variants utilized in packaging materials are virtually never recycled and might be suitable for restriction. However, the Global Expanded Polystyrene Sustainability Alliance, a trade association for EPS producers, highlights evidence indicating that, in Europe and Japan, the material can be recycled in at least 30 percent of cases

Due to technical limitations, one expert proposes a maximum recycled content of about 5 percent for consumer product packaging.

“We have five primary types” of polystyrene, stated Betsy Bowers, executive director of the Expanded Polystyrene Industry Alliance, a trade group representing the US EPS market. “Some of them can undergo recycling, while others cannot.”

Plastics Europe has suggested an application-driven strategy that could examine plastic goods based on “leakage,” their tendency to become litter; the feasibility of redesigning them; or their “impacts on human or animal health.” Nevertheless, the organization doesn’t advocate for limitations on plastic-related chemicals as part of the treaty beyond what is stipulated in existing international agreements like the Stockholm Convention. The International Council of Chemical Associations, featuring individual chemical producers and regional trade groups among its members, doesn’t endorse any chemical regulations within the treaty.

In correspondence with Grist, the American Chemistry Council expressed support for a “decision-tree approach” to prevent specific plastic products from infiltrating the environment. The organization conveyed in a letter dispatched to President Joe Biden last May its opposition to “constraints on the trade of chemicals or polymers” as itthey could “reduce the competitiveness of U.S. manufacturers and/or endanger the numerous advantages plastics offer to the economy and the environment.”

Grist’s request for an interview regarding the policies they endorse went unanswered by the International Council of Chemical Associations, the Plastics Industry Association, and the Circular Economy for Flexible Packaging initiative.

It is evident that at the core of the petrochemical industry’s agenda for the plastics treaty lies self-preservation. However, the supported policies could yield a positive outcome in tackling plastic pollution. According to the policy analysis tool crafted by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, Santa Barbara, a set of ambitious policies aiming to achieve recycling and recycled content rates of 20 percent, reusing 60 percent of plastic packaging (where applicable), and allocating $35 billion to plastics recycling and waste infrastructure could prevent 43 million metric tons of plastic pollution annually by the midcentury. The major reduction would stem from the infrastructure funding.

One of the creators of the tool, McCauley, expressed that these policies are unquestionably an improvement. They have the potential to lead the world closer to a future devoid of plastic pollution, as he conveyed to Grist, stressing that recycling alone is not a universal solution.

The assumption made by the policy tool is that attaining higher recycling and recycled content rates is feasible, although this may not be the reality. Bjorn Beeler, the executive director and international coordinator for the nonprofit International Pollutants Elimination Network, argued that achieving a 20 percent recycling rate would be exceedingly challenging due to the comparatively low cost of virgin plastic and the expected expansion of the petrochemical industry in the upcoming years.

Jan Dell, an independent chemical engineer and the founder of The Last Beach Cleanup nonprofit, estimated that the maximum achievable recycled content rate for consumer product packaging would likely be around 5 percent, owing to insurmountable technological barriers linked to plastics’ harmful properties.

“The inclusion of plastic production limitations in the treaty goes beyond being a mere policy debate. It’s imperative for survival.”

Experts generally favor the imposition of plastic production limits as a more prompt, dependable, and simpler approach to curbing plastic pollution compared to relying solely on recycling. As per McCauley’s policy tool, capping plastic production at the 2019 level would prevent 48 million metric tons of annual plastic pollution by 2050, even without additional measures to enhance recycling or support waste management. Sam Pottinger, a senior research data scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a contributor to the policy tool, mentioned, “While it’s conceivable to be efficient without the cap, it would necessitate substantial efforts in other aspects.”

There is no reason why the plastics treaty could not enforce a production cap alongside the industry’s preferred recycling initiatives. Some experts believe this approach would form the most effective agreement. According to the policy tool, a production cap at 2019 levels coupled with the set of recycling objectives and funding for waste infrastructure could prevent nearly 78 million metric tons of annual plastic pollution by 2050. By increasing the funding for recycling and waste infrastructure to an assertive $200 billion and combining it with the production cap alongside other policies, it could avert nearly 109 million metric tons of pollution annually.

“We must utilize every strategy at our disposal,” stated Zoie Diana, a postdoctoral researcher specializing in plastics at the University of Toronto, who was not involved in developing the policy tool. She also stressed the importance of governments prioritizing a reduction in plastic production.

Advocating for a production cap extends beyond concerns of plastic litter. It would also address the disproportionate impact of toxic pollution from plastic manufacturing facilities and the industry’s role in contributing to climate change. A study conducted by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in April revealed that plastic production currently contributes to 5 percent of global climate emissions, and with the petrochemical industry’s plans to significantly increase plastic production by 2050, it could consume one-fifth of the remaining global carbon budget, the limit of emissions that can be released while still containing global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). To meet international climate targets, some environmental organizations have estimated that the world must reduce plastic production by 12 to 17 percent annually starting in 2024.

“The inclusion of plastic production cuts in the treaty is not just a matter of policy discussion,” remarked Jorge Emmanuel, an adjunct professor at Silliman University in the Philippines, in a statement highlighting the detrimental effects of plastic waste on Filipino communities. “It is crucial for survival.”

alleviating climate change, citing that the lightweight material requires less fuel for transportation compared to metal and glass alternatives. Public statements from industry groups commonly skirt around addressing environmental justice concerns linked to plastic usage, production, and disposal, merely hinting that the treaty should not be detrimental to waste collectors—the millions of individuals, largely in developing nations, who rely on collecting and selling plastic waste for their livelihood.

The fifth and final round of discussions for the plastics treaty is set to occur in Busan, South Korea, this November. Despite calls from numerous stakeholders, such as a group of U.S. Congressional representatives and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, for conflict-of-interest regulations to curb the influence of trade groups over the negotiations, these requests face considerable challenges. The countries advocating for limits on production might have to defend their proposals against an even more substantial industry presence compared to the previous session in Ottawa.