The presidents of Switzerland and Ecuador led a call here at the World Economic Forum (WEF) Tuesday for greater international cooperation to fight plastic pollution, urging passage of a global treaty with tough regulations to confront a growing environmental and health crisis.
Swiss President Alain Berset, heading a high-level panel discussion hosted by Switzerland, told a packed room that an international treaty and new “regulatory framework” is needed to get rid of plastics that are clogging the world’s ecosystems, and poisoning wildlife – with severe human health consequences as well.
“We are facing a major plastic crisis. The world cannot deal with the amount of plastic it produces,” Berset said. “If we continue on this path there could be more plastic than fish by 2050.”
The plastic crisis is not only an environmental crisis, but also a health and socio-economic challenge, “and Switzerland is ready to do its part,” Berset added.
Ecuador’s President Guillermo Lasso Mendoza noted that his nation and Switzerland are “united by a historic commitment” to work together to end plastics pollution as two of the five member states that are joining the United Nations Security Council this year.
Japan, Malta, Mozambique are the other three countries that have been elected to a two-year term on the 15-nation council, the world body’s most powerful arm, based in New York.
“With our commitment we are indeed making history. We must find a solution to the global crisis of plastic waste,” said Lasso Mendoza. “In just a few years, there will be more plastic in our oceans by tons than there is fauna.”
In March 2022, the world’s environment ministries agreed to negotiate a treaty on plastics pollution. The accord by some 175 UN member states was reached at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi.
But the road to approval and ratification of a new legal instrument that has teeth promises to be a major lift in light of the powerful oil and gas interests that will oppose it every step of the way.
Political leadership by countries such as Switzerland and Ecuador on the Security Council and in other fora will thus be key to making real progress in such negotiations.
Fossil fuel producers massively scaling up plastics production
Currently, an estimated 5 per cent of global total goods trade is in plastics, Lasso Mendoza said, citing UN data. But even as knowledge about the health and environmental risks of plastics grows, fossil fuel producers are scaling up their plastics production, with plans to double the production of virgin plastic resin by 2040.
At current rates, plastics are on track to account for 20 per cent of oil and gas consumption by 2050, according to the UN Environment Programme.
“Political will and leadership are the foundations upon which we must build,” Lasso Mendoza said. “Ecuador takes the fight against plastic very seriously. We need a globally binding treaty. We should reach [an] agreement by the end of 2024.”
Already over the past 30 years, plastic consumption has increased four-fold. Global production of recycled plastics more than quadrupled over the same period, but recycled plastics still only represent 6 per cent of global plastics production, while 94 per cent are “virgin” plastics, according to the OECD.
Burgeoning health and environmental impacts
Of the plastics that don’t get reprocessed and reused, 19 per cent are incinerated, 50 per cent end up in landfills, and 22 per cent end up being burned in open pits, wind up in uncontrolled dumpsites, or scattered along roadsides, farmland or in the waters of poorer countries.
A 2021 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that plastic contamination of farmland from single-use soil and plant coverings, tubing and other materials, poses an increasing threat to soil quality, food safety and human health.
On the seas, a recent Nature study found that the blue whales, which typically feed on krill, may consume some ten million pieces of microplastics a day, a taste of what other large fish like tuna and salmon are likely eating as well.
Human exposure to plastic additives such as DEHP and phthalates, used to soften polyvinyl chloride (PVC), leads to higher risks of cancer and hormonal disorders that cause reproductive health problems.
Not only are the phthalate additives health harmful, but the production of PVC out of fossil fuel-derived ethylene also generates considerable mercury emissions toxic to humans and to wildlife. Along with its uses in waterproof garments and building materials, PVC is ubiquitous in healthcare settings where it is a key component of basic medical devices like IV tubes.
‘Dangerous for all living things’
Rwanda’s environment minister Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya, whose nation has teamed with Norway to eliminate plastic pollution by 2040, told the panel that “plastic pollution is not only dangerous for nature but for all living things, including human beings”.
“No one country can solve the problem alone,” she emphasised.
Marco Lambertini, special envoy and former director general of the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF), said that negotiations on an international treaty need to be inclusive of governments, businesses, investors and citizens.
“Without everybody, we won’t get anywhere,” he said. “We also need to look at the plastic value chain in its entirety, from production to disposal.”
Developing countries that lack the infrastructure for waste management will need special help, he added, and recycling must be increased globally from its current “outrageous” low of less than 10 per cent.
“I see a real parallel between the phasing out of fossil fuels and the phasing out of fossil fuel-based plastics,” he said.
Kristin Hughes, director of WEF’s Global Plastic Action Partnership, added that “you don’t just need business, you also need the government component. And they need to work together”.
Ending plastics pollution critical for healthier environment
The World Health Organization’s director general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said ending plastics pollution is a critical part of creating a healthier environment for everyone, but more study is needed to determine the range of biological and human health impacts that plastics can and do have.
“I don't think plastics pollution and health – that connection – has been given the attention it needed, I have to admit. And not only that,” Tedros said. “We don’t have research that documents well how plastics affect human health throughout the [product] lifecycle.”
“They do actually.”