The Comprehensive Plastic Policies We Need for a Clean Future

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Our planet is awash in plastic. This ubiquitous human creation has been found in the most remote locations — from the North Pole to Antarctica and from the highest slopes of Mount Everest to the Mariana Trench, the deepest place in the ocean.

But plastic is also as close as city streets and public parks, rivers, streams, beaches and throughout the ocean — where it’s injuring and killing wildlife. And in what may come as a surprise to many people, plastic is even found throughout the human body.

That’s why the theme of Earth Day 2024 — “planet vs. plastics” — is not hyperbole. Humanity is at a major crossroads in its relationship with this cheap, durable material that can take centuries or longer to break down — with an increasing body of scientific evidence showing that plastic pollution is harmful to wildlife, natural ecosystems and human health.

Fortunately, there’s a clear path to solving plastic pollution in the U.S. and around the world, although it won’t be easy. 

As The Pew Charitable Trusts detailed in our 2020 report, “Breaking the Plastic Wave, ” plastic pollution worldwide could be reduced by 80 percent by 2040 by instituting changes at every stage of the plastic life cycle, from production and use to recycling and disposal. But an 80 percent solution won’t solve the problem; getting to 100 percent by 2040 will, although that requires additional innovation and strong political will.

To be clear, we cannot recycle our way out of this problem. Instead, the solutions must span the entire plastic life cycle, with an emphasis on reducing plastic production and demand in the first place. In fact, Pew’s report found that reducing plastic production and consumption would yield the biggest reduction in plastic pollution of any potential action. Reducing production and consumption also offers the greatest opportunity to lower greenhouse gas emissions associated with producing plastic and converting virgin plastic, which accounts for almost 90 percent of plastic emissions.

To be effective, governments must lead these solutions with support from businesses, nongovernmental organizations, scientists, communities affected by plastic production and pollution, individuals who collect and recycle for their livelihood and consumers.

Right now, the U.S. government has an unprecedented opportunity to play a central role in this global effort. The United Nations is negotiating an international agreement to end plastic pollution and has set a target to complete the agreement’s development by the end of this year. During these negotiations, the U.S. should support global and legally binding obligations that address all stages of the plastic life cycle.  

Earth Day began in the U.S. in 1970 at a time when the country was confronting another era of environmental degradation — badly polluted air, water and land, and very few checks on industrial waste. In part, through the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and other sweeping federal legislation, the U.S. government has since forged a path toward reducing pollution and cleaning up our cities, towns, and natural areas. That work continues. 

But the U.S. must now build on these previous actions to tackle plastic pollution domestically by creating robust national policies and internationally by supporting comprehensive and ambitious provisions as part of the U.N.’s global agreement.

American leaders should view a strong national and international response to plastic pollution as a responsibility, not an option. The U.S. is the world’s second-highest producer of plastic (after China) and is among the highest producers of plastic waste and the pollution it creates.

The U.N.’s work resumes next week when the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution meets in Ottawa to continue its talks. At that event, the U.S. should help ensure that the final agreement addresses the full life cycle of plastic, including strong measures for reducing plastic production, banning problematic and avoidable products and polymers such as multi-material plastic packaging, improving product design and managing plastic waste.

The agreement should also focus on how to pay for collecting and managing plastic after its use, such as extended producer responsibility — in which companies that introduce plastic products must cover the cost of collection, sorting, recycling and waste management. Strong measures are also needed to directly address and reduce plastic pollution throughout its life cycle, in particular from microplastics — particles less than 5 millimeters in size, accounting for around one-third of plastic pollution worldwide.

A coherent and comprehensive international agreement would be far more effective than leaving individual governments to pursue these goals on their own; a nationally led approach will almost certainly lead to piecemeal policies that create uncertainty in the public and private sectors on how best to deliver the solutions. This uncertainty would, in turn, undermine the effectiveness of any U.N. agreement.

Plastic pollution is an important issue that touches all our lives and has considerable global consequences. Earth Day gives us the opportunity to focus on the collective actions needed to solve this urgent problem. A comprehensive United Nations agreement — with strong U.S. leadership — is a first step toward the planet prevailing over plastics.

Winnie Lau leads The Pew Charitable Trusts’ work to end plastic pollution.

This piece originally ran in The Hill on April 19.

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