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Wrestling with the externalities of the plastics supply chain

As the first meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiation Committee of the UN Global Treaty to End Plastic Pollution approaches, publications highlight the diverse effects the plastics supply chain has on human health and the environment, particularly the burden on vulnerable communities.

“The welfare of the public and the planet share name – Equality doesn’t mean being the exact same, but enacting a vast aim: The good of the world to its highest capability.”

With her poem An Ode We Owe, poet Amanda Gorman opened the meeting of the UN General Assembly on September 20, 2022, by urging world leaders to act on the overlapping issues of the climate crisis, social justice, and poverty. Much of the General Assembly will discuss progress and losses towards the 17 Sustainable Development Goals set for 2030, which are largely based on human rights. The topic of global equity in chemical exposure and the effects of plastic waste abound as negotiations for the UN treaty to end plastic pollution approach. Recent reports from across the world have highlighted how from the location of petrochemical plants to the chemicals in consumer products, and ultimately the exported waste and processing, the externalities of the plastics supply chain historically and in the present unjustly burden vulnerable communities.

In an editorial published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynaecology on September 7, 2022, Jessica Trowbridge and co-authors of the University of California, San Francisco argued that fossil fuels are the “common denominator” between climate change, chemical exposure, and negative effects on women’s and children’s health. Trowbridge et al. wrote that humans are exposed to “anthropogenically-produced petrochemicals via air, food, water, and dermal contact” and for chemicals with enough health data, there is evidence of negative maternal and child health outcomes. “For example, chemicals in plastic production such as phthalates can increase the risk of preterm delivery, which is the strongest risk factor for infant mortality” (FPF reported, also here). Furthermore, “exposure to anthropogenic chemicals is… a source of health inequities both in the USA and globally.”

In the southern US state of Louisiana, air permits for a new petrochemical plant proposed by Formosa Plastics were revoked on September 14, 2022. This decision blocks the corporation’s bid to build a nearly 10 km2 (2400 acre) factory complex in a region dubbed ‘Cancer Alley.’ Cancer Alley is a ‘sacrifice zone’ in southern Louisiana along the Mississippi River which contains over 150 petrochemical plants and refineries. Forty-six out of every million inhabitants in the region will likely develop cancer, the US national average is 30 per million. Earthjustice, which represented the local community in the lawsuit, stated that “petrochemical production is the fastest-growing use of fossil fuels — mostly used for making plastics and much of it for single use.”

According to reporting by The Washington Post and ProPublica, the production of those plastics and other products would have released 800 tons of toxic chemicals into the air each year, doubling or even tripling the level of cancer-causing pollutants already affecting local communities.

While the Louisiana community of St. James’ Parish was able to block the building of the Formosa Plastics complex, Kristina Marusic of Environmental Health News details concerns from communities in the state of Pennsylvania about the opening of a new petrochemical plant in their region. Marusic writes that the new plant, which produces virgin plastic pellets, will “emit 159 tons of particulate matter pollution, 522 tons of volatile organic compounds, and more than 40 tons of other hazardous air pollutants.” All are associated with a diverse array of health effects. Shell promises that the small plastic pellets will not escape the facility. However, the tiny plastic pieces can be difficult to contain, plastic spills are often hard to clean and the resulting physical and chemical pollution (FPF reported) can have disastrous effects (FPF reported).

At the other end of the supply chain, the Netherlands was recently reported by Plastic Soup Foundation to be the world leader in plastic exports, per capita. Much of the plastic waste from the EU and UK is sent via the Netherlands to countries throughout the Global South including 70 million kgs to Indonesia and 64 million kg to Vietnam.

Türkiye also receives plastic waste exports from the EU. A Human Rights Watch report published on September 21, 2022, documented “the health impacts of plastic recycling on facility workers and residents living near facilities.” The recycling facility workers in Türkiye “often come from some of the most marginalized populations in Turkey, including child workers, refugees, and undocumented migrants.” Human Rights Watch declares that “while often touted as a positive, environmentally friendly practice, plastic recycling can pose significant threats to human rights and the environment.”

Plastics can serve an important purpose in many functions and industries but balancing the utility of the material with the effects on human and environmental health is important for creating a more just society.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on September 24, 2022, the creation of a new office “charged with advancing environmental justice and civil rights.” This includes “meaningful involvement of all people with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies regardless of race, color, national origin, or income.”

The office may be able to help in cases like St. James Parish and their concerns over emissions from Formosa Plastics. The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality received over 15,000 public comments opposing air permits in 2020. The judge who recently overturned the air permits wrote that the community, which is primarily Black or African American, “could not have known that the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality would violate its duty.”

As Trowbridge wrote in their “common denominator” editorial, “efforts to reduce fossil fuel use will mitigate exacerbations of maternal and child health inequities due to climate change, while also decreasing a source of chemical exposures, which could contribute to a double benefit to health.”

One potentially large contribution to the global reduction in petrochemical exposure is the Global Treaty to End Plastic Pollution (aka the UN Plastics Treaty, FPF reported also here). The first Intergovernmental Negotiation Committee meeting is scheduled for late November 2022. As negotiators prepare, it is critical to support measurable, evidence-based solutions to plastic pollution.

Industry coalitions can make a significant impact on reducing plastic pollution when incentivized to do so but they can also be used as a form of greenwashing. Before the adoption of the UN Plastics Treaty 70 organizations signed a Business Statement for a Legally Binding UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution developed by the World Wildlife Fund and the Ellen Macarthur Foundation. The statement included “explicit recognition of the need to reduce virgin plastic production and use,” an industry first. Yet, Planet Tracker found that 60 out of the 65 members of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste which includes global companies in the petrochemical and consumer products industries like Shell, Dow, Formosa Plastics, and P&G (FPF reported), did not publicly support the statement despite the fact the Alliance seems named to appear aligned with the same goals.

Regardless, the World Wildlife Fund and the Ellen Macarthur Foundation continue to build a network in support the work of the UN negotiations. They announced a coalition of 85 organizations to create “common vision for an effective and ambitious” treaty. The participating businesses, financial institutions, and NGOs agree the treaty must include a “reduction of plastic production and use through a circular economy approach, increased circulation of necessary plastic and the prevention and remediation of hard-to-abate micro- and macro-plastic leakage into the environment.”

“Though this fight we did not choose, for preserving the earth, isn’t a battle too big to win, but a blessing too large to lose.” -Amanda Gorman, An Ode We Owe

This article was republished with permission from the Food Packaging Forum. View the original version.

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