Plastics protest in Ottaw

Members of Greenpeace holds up placards during the fourth session of the UN Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution in Ottawa, Canada, on April 23, 2024.

(Photo by Dave Chan / AFP) (Photo by DAVE CHAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Plastic Poisons People. Will the Biden Administration Protect Us?

No one is immune to the impacts of plastic pollution, and we are running out of time.

To the Biden Administration,

Wrapping up the penultimate round of negotiations for a global plastics treaty, the United States Delegation has so far refused to commit to the essential solution to tackle the plastic pollution crisis: global, legally binding, and timebound commitments to reduce plastic production. While the U.S. has now acknowledged that the “lifecycle” of plastic begins with fossil fuel extraction, it has offered no clear plan to address the accumulation of plastics in human bodies and in our shared environment. It has also failed to confront the acute, sustained, and systemic upstream impacts to communities who are overburdened by extraction and the toxic production of plastic precursors and feedstocks.

Further, despite a broad array of existing U.S. laws, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Toxic Substances Control Act that empower U.S. negotiators to take a truly ambitious stance, the U.S. Delegation continues to downplay the regulatory authorities of relevant agencies in order to push for an ambitious treaty. So far, the U.S. positions resort to the lowest-common-denominator — an approach that bears far more in common with that of high-powered petrostates like Iran, Russia, and Saudi Arabia than of the larger international community of which the U.S. claims to be a leader.

Every day, frontline communities across the U.S. suffer the impacts of plastic pollution at every stage of the plastic “lifecycle,” and every human in the country and around the world faces mounting exposures to plastic threats. Moral, legal, and scientific obligations demand this problem be tackled at the source. Yet U.S. negotiators continue over-emphasizing failed waste management and recycling schemes, peddling a so-called “circular economy of plastics.” This approach will only accelerate the circulation of thousands of harmful, toxic chemicals in plastics, and continue polluting the environment and our bodies. Only promoting demand-side measures is absurd when it is abundantly clear that the only way to address the plastics crisis is through production reduction.

Meanwhile, scientific reports continue to pile up, bearing evidence that these chemicals leach from microplastics, now found in human blood, lungs, stool, placentas, semen, and breast milk, and most recently and troublingly, in human cancer cells. Nor is the threat from plastics limited to human health, human rights, or biodiversity. A recent report from DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory demonstrates yet again the critical need to reduce plastic production to meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius climate change imperative.

It is extremely disappointing to see the U.S. Delegation to these vital talks continue to push a position that undermines this administration’s commitments and goals on climate and environmental justice. The current negotiating position of the U.S. would enable the plastics industry to keep expanding production capacity—often incentivized by federal subsidies and tax breaks. This would deepen environmental injustice for communities living on the frontline, and accelerate the climate crisis, extinguishing any hope of remaining beneath 1.5 degrees Celsius or stopping the proliferation of toxic chemicals in our air, water, and soil.

As the world’s largest consumer and exporter of plastic waste, purporting to recognize the severity of the crisis, the U.S. must act decisively on these imperatives rather than negotiating an ineffective treaty that will sacrifice the public health and human rights of all to the interests of the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries. At the very least, it is imperative that the U.S. Delegation to the Global Plastic Treaty:

  • Support a legally binding international agreement that begins with globally defined targets, not nationally determined contributions;
  • Support significant production caps on plastic monomers and polymers, phase-downs, and phase-outs with binding timelines to prevent plastic pollution from poisoning communities and the planet across the full “lifecycle”;
  • Support a group-based, health-protective, precautionary approach to restricting chemicals of concern in plastics, and account for toxics used and formed in the plastic manufacturing process;
  • Support just transition measures including for the upstream petrochemical production supply chain in the U.S., in harmony with the mandates of the Stockholm Convention and Paris Accord, and protect the health and human rights of communities of color, Indigenous peoples, waste pickers, and low-income communities most impacted by the plastics “lifecycle”;
  • Support safe and environmentally sound waste management, in harmony with the mandate of the Basel Convention. Reject false solutions like plastic circularity, plastic waste-to-fuel or energy, mass balance allocation, plastic credit schemes, and “chemical recycling” in all its forms.

Frontline groups have repeatedly invited the U.S. State Department and relevant federal agency representatives to travel to communities to witness firsthand the devastating impacts of plastic producing petrochemical plants and the environmental injustice they represent. We invite the President and other senior administration officials to visit, as well. Community leaders are subject matter experts in petrochemical and plastics production and expansion effects, and their lived experiences must be centered in these negotiations.

These treaty negotiations represent a monumental opportunity for the world and the administration. Over 80% of Americans understand that plastic pollution is a major crisis and overwhelmingly support measures to reduce plastic production. But at this stage, the Biden Administration and the U.S. Delegation that implements its orders are failing to provide the leadership necessary to confront the greatest public health crises of our time. If the Biden Administration is serious about leading on climate and environmental justice, then it must prioritize public health and human rights over the interests of the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries.

No one is immune to the impacts of plastic pollution, and we are running out of time.

Break Free From Plastic US

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