A volunteer removes plastic bottles and other trash polluting Ruaka River in Nairobi, Kenya.

A volunteer removes plastic bottles and other trash polluting Ruaka River in Nairobi, Kenya.

(Photo: James Wakibia/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Biden, Back a Plastics Treaty That Slashes Production

A reduction of at least 75% in plastic making by 2040; the elimination of dangerous chemicals, polymers, and single-use plastic packaging; and a just transition for those in the plastics industry are integral components of a transformative approach.

Last week, I was in Nairobi, Kenya, for negotiations on the Global Plastic Treaty. This treaty is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to stem the tide of throwaway plastic that is destroying our planet.

Ninety-nine percent of plastics are made from fossil fuels like oil and gas, which are driving the climate crisis. The pollution from creating plastics is poisoning communities—especially communities of color. Microplastics and hazardous chemicals have been found in the food we eat, the air we breathe, and even in our blood and organs. And because so little plastic is actually recycled, it ends up polluting our oceans and communities. If the plastic and oil industries have their way, there will be a massive increase in the amount of plastic produced, an increase that people and the planet cannot afford.

At the heart of the matter lies a critical divergence in approach. The United States has been advocating for a voluntary agreement centered on plastic recycling and waste management, steering clear of addressing the root causes of the issue. This stance falls short of the mark, given the stark realities illuminated by the scientific community and the overwhelming concerns voiced by the American people. At this meeting, it was apparent that the U.S. approach is evolving. They were more constructive on process issues than in earlier meetings, and there were some improvements on policy. Overall, though, the U.S. has yet to embrace the fact that an effective treaty must reduce production.

The final rounds of negotiations scheduled to take place in Canada and Korea next year represent a historic opportunity for the Biden administration to leave a lasting environmental legacy.

This was the third session of the United Nations Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution. The goal is to finalize a Global Plastics Treaty in 2024. I implore President Joe Biden and all global leaders to seize the opportunity to adopt a binding Global Plastics Treaty that will reduce plastic production by at least 75% by 2040. We cannot recycle our way out of this crisis. The only solution is to stop producing so much plastic in the first place.

The adverse effects of plastic permeate every stage of its life cycle. The extraction of fossil fuels to produce plastic drives climate change and disproportionately impacts marginalized communities. The example of Louisiana's Cancer Alley, an 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River, stands as a poignant reminder of the devastating impact on communities hosting oil refineries and plastic manufacturing facilities. Workers in contact with plastic fibers exhibit lung problems and reduced lung capacity.

A staggering array of chemicals—over 13,000 of them—are used in plastic production. Alarming statistics from the United Nations Environment Program reveal that 3,200 of these chemicals have the potential to cause cancer, nervous system issues, and hormonal disruptions. These health risks, connected to diseases like cancer, heart problems, and birth defects, underscore the multifaceted nature of the crisis. Microplastics and chemical additives infiltrate our bodies when we eat, drink, and even breathe. Since the 1950s, scientists have warned us about the perils of plastic chemicals entering our bodies through food and drink. This year, Japanese and Chinese scientists discovered that microplastics are not only present in clouds but may actually be affecting cloud formation.

The journey of plastic does not end with consumption. Chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, commonly found in plastics, can leach into our food and water, causing hormone disruption and posing severe health risks. Recycling, touted as a solution, can paradoxically render plastics more toxic, exacerbating the environmental and health challenges we face.

Yet our leaders continue to advocate for the seemingly reassuring façade of recycling. The inconvenient truth, however, is that less than 10% of plastic has ever been recycled. The vast majority ends up in our oceans, detrimentally impacting marine life and tarnishing our coastlines. Often, wealthier countries like the United States ship their plastic waste to poorer countries, with severe ramifications for public health and environmental justice.

As the United States pushes for a primarily voluntary agreement emphasizing plastic recycling and waste management, the scientific community and the American public voice their concerns. According to recent polls, over 80% of American voters are concerned about single-use plastic products, calling for a reduction in plastic packaging and holding businesses accountable for their plastic waste. The disconnect between governmental priorities and public sentiment underscores the need for a paradigm shift in plastic governance.

The Global Plastics Treaty presents an unprecedented opportunity to effect meaningful change. Greenpeace USA urges the Biden administration to take bold action, recognizing the urgency of the crisis. Fundamentally, the treaty must address the root causes of plastic pollution. A reduction of at least 75% in plastic production by 2040; the elimination of dangerous chemicals, polymers, and single-use plastic packaging; and a just transition for those in the plastics industry are integral components of a transformative approach. We must also incentivize innovation that will help scale up reuse.

Environmental justice must be at the forefront of our efforts. The disproportionate impact of plastic production on marginalized communities demands a commitment to fair and equitable transitions as we move toward a low-carbon, zero-waste, and reusable economy. This is not just an environmental imperative but a moral obligation to protect the health and well-being of all Americans and the global community.

The final rounds of negotiations scheduled to take place in Canada and Korea next year represent a historic opportunity for the Biden administration to leave a lasting environmental legacy. The Global Plastics Treaty is not just a policy initiative but a manifestation of the people's will. It is time to listen, act decisively, and champion a future free from the shackles of plastic pollution. Our health, our planet, and the legacy we leave for future generations depend on the choices we make today.

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