Once produced, plastics are unmanageable. We have 70 years of evidence that the most aggressive waste management will not stem the tide of plastic pollution unless accompanied by significant cuts in production. Addressing the planetary crisis of plastics pollution must begin not with asking how much more pollution can be accommodated, but rather asking what reduction measures are needed to reverse the crisis and cut back on plastic’s global toxicity debt, harm to biodiversity, human health and its significant contribution to the climate crisis.
With plastics, society is in the grips of an unnecessary and unmanageable addiction – an addiction that is harming human, ecosystem and planetary health. The plastics industry's plans to double and triple plastics production in the next three decades will intensify our multiple ecological crises. It will also worsen the environmental injustices associated with every stage of the plastics cycle of harm, even as it locks in a growing number of marginalized people in a toxic treadmill of underpaid and hazardous occupations.
A scientific study has established that even the best efforts taken to manage plastic waste will fail to stem the build-up of plastics in the environment as long as production continues to expand. The ongoing and proposed ramp up of production capacity will mean that plastic waste entering the world’s oceans will nearly triple to 53 million tonnes by 2030—even under the most ambitious waste management scenario (Lau et al., 2020). There just isn’t any room for more plastics in the world’s environment, what is there already is causing significant harm and breaching planetary boundaries.
1st Harm - Climate: The plastics industry accounts for 850 million tonnes of CO2eq emissions annually. That is more than the combined emissions of all the small island nations that face the brunt of both plastics pollution and climate change. If production capacity is allowed to increase as planned, emissions will increase to 1.34 billion tonnes by 2030 and 5.6 billion tonnes cumulatively by 2050 (CIEL, 2019). These 2050 projected combined annual emissions are greater than the combined emissions of all nations in the African continent and the emissions of the United States (at 1.45 million and 5 billion tonnes respectively, according to the Global Change Data Lab, 2023).
2nd Harm - Carbon Sequestration: Plastic harms the ability of the oceans – the most significant carbon sink on Earth – to sequester carbon. As the plastics trash breaks down, nanoplastic particles released into the marine and coastal environment will compromise the ability of ‘Blue Carbon Ecosystems’ (tidal marshes, mangroves, seagrass meadows, oceanic plankton) and zooplankton to sequester carbon. If the ocean carbon sink is disturbed by plastics, it “could release a disproportionate amount of accumulated carbon into the atmosphere and hamper global climate goals” (Adyel & Macreadie, 2022; Shen et al., 2020). Carbon sequestration is not just limited to the oceans, soil also plays a vital role. Microplastics have been proven to damage soil health, act as a vector for toxic chemicals into the soil, harm soil microbes and affect plant growth (Sajjad et al., 2022)
3rd Harm - Justice: Waste management capacity cannot keep pace with the proposed expansion of plastics production (Borrelle et al., 2020). Low-income and Low-middle-income countries would need to invest massive amounts of money to deal with plastics—money that could be better utilized to directly improve the quality of life of their citizens and transitioning their economies out of fossil fuels. These countries also shoulder a disproportionate burden from the global waste trade from Global North countries.
4th Harm - Biodiversity: As plastics end up in terrestrial and marine environments, they present a direct threat to wildlife that get entangled in the plastic detritus or mistake them for prey or food. Microplastics are present across the food chain as they are consumed by animals and bioaccumulate, exposing animals and potentially humans to harmful chemical additives associated with them (Miller et al., 2020).
5th Harm - Human Health: Production and use of plastics has profound and untold consequences on human health. The building blocks of plastic materials include thousands of toxic, harmful additives and chemicals. Communities, informal workers, waste pickers and consumers of plastic products are inevitably exposed to these toxic chemicals and additives that leak out of plastics during use or are released during recycling and disposal. Substances associated with plastics can disrupt endocrine (hormonal) functions, lead to various types of cancer, impair organ function, suppress immune systems and disrupt development in children and fetuses.
6th Harm - Human Rights: Plastic pollution is a human rights and social justice issue that particularly affects lower-income populations, Indigenous peoples, people of color, rural and coastal communities, women and children, and communities across the Global South. They bear the uneven costs of plastic pollution, waste and production, and are often the ones with the least access to resources to deal with the impacts of this pollution.
Plastics have contributed to exceeding major planetary boundaries (climate change and biosphere integrity), and is already exceeding a boundary of its own under the “novel entities” category. To qualify as a planetary boundary, novel entities (pollutants) must be circulating on a planetary scale, be practically irretrievable upon release to the environment, and must pose a threat to Earth system functioning. Plastics qualify.
“. . .we are now in a zone of exceedance of the Planetary Boundary for novel entities. Further, even if we were to stabilize or reduce production and releases, the effects. . .will still be a threat due to the persistence of many novel entities. Thus, we conclude that increases in production and releases of novel entities are not consistent with keeping humanity within the safe operating space, in the light of the global capacity for management.” (Persson et al., 2022)
This is a manifesto for a future free from plastic pollution. Without dramatic and deep cuts in the production of plastics, the attacks on the climate, human health and justice, biodiversity and the integrity of the planet to support and sustain life will all intensify.
Global leaders have a once in a lifetime opportunity to cure the world of this addiction with a strong global plastics treaty that addresses the root of the problem.
As signatories to this manifesto, we demand a treaty that significantly reduces plastics production, fosters reuse systems to break free from single-use plastics, and reclaims our rights to live in a safe and life-sustaining planet.