OSU Scientist, Other Experts Believe UN Plastic Waste Resolution Is Insufficient

The United Nations Environment Programme’s fifth session in Nairobi focused on plastic, where the UN assembly passed a resolution to reduce plastic waste. The resolution passed with overwhelming support, and negotiations to establish a legally binding worldwide convention reducing plastic waste by the end of 2024 will begin on May 30. However, while the resolution was largely hailed as a watershed moment for environmental and global health, it provoked grim predictions from experts.  

A letter published in the journal Science by experts from several professions, called for firm limits on plastic pollution. Among the experts publishing the letter was Oregon State University’s Dr. Susanne Brandner, an environmental toxicologist who is researching the effects of microplastics on gene expression.  

The letter reads, “Despite interventions by the industry and objections from the United States and other delegations, reducing plastics at the source by curbing production is critical. The immense quantity and diversity of both plastics and plastic chemicals, the total weight of which exceeds the overall mass of all land and marine animals, already poses enormous challenges.”  

Anxieties in this letter were presented with substantial citations nearing the length of the letter itself.  The resolution places a strong emphasis on downstream remedies, or those that focus on pollution rather than its source.  

“Relying on those approaches alone is not going to reduce the production of plastic enough for us to not have an impact on the environment,” said Brander in a statement to Salon.   

The letter states, “Even when applying all political and technological solutions available today, including substitution, improved recycling, waste management, and circularity, annual plastic emissions to the environment can only be cut by 79% over 20 years. To fully prevent plastic pollution, the path forward must include a phaseout of virgin plastic production by 2040.”  

A 2021 study published in Science with 30 contributing authors dissecting present solutions, difficulties, and future directions for microplastics found that there was no simple answer. The study concluded, “Substantial commitments to improving the global plastic system are required from businesses, governments, and the international community to solve the ecological, social, and economic problems of plastic pollution and achieve near-zero input of plastics into the environment.”  

Existing solutions – such as recycling, recovery, and replacing plastics with alternatives – could only reduce annual plastic pollution to 17.3 million tons by 2040, according to the study, which is why scientists from Canada, Germany, India, Norway, Sweden, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States wrote the letter. 

Much is unclear about the effects of heavy metal buildup on humans’ health, but what is known is enough to prompt severe action. Brander’s own study looks at the varied effects of pollution on aquatic life’s endocrine systems. While she was hesitant to link plastic pollution to human development and reproduction, her research discovered that endocrine disruptors such as phthalates and bisphenols, chemical additives often present in plastics, have similar sub-lethal effects on aquatic life. As plastics and their chemical ingredients aggregate, they may pose a harm to human fertility and development.  

“It’s not dissimilar to other pollutant types like pesticides in runoff or industrial chemicals in runoff,” said Bradner, “they’re all contributing to some of the same problems, but plastics are unique in that they continue to break down.”  

Microplastics are particularly difficult to research because of this. Concentrations in the environment can be difficult to assess since they dissolve rather than dissipate, yet remain in the environment while doing so. As a result, microplastics are now present in the food we consume and the water we drink, and they are accumulating within us, just as they do in other species.  

It’s unclear how they’ll do this, but scientists are concerned that discussions may repeat the mistakes of the Paris Agreement, which failed to successfully bring UN member states toward dramatic carbon emission reductions urged by scientists and the UN’s own IPCC assessments.  

“There’s no reason not to act even if the cessation of the use of Virgin plastic has to be, of course, gradual,” said Bradner. “It’s hard for me to see an argument for using a wait-and-see approach like we’ve done with so many other chemicals.”  

By Lisa Hernandez  

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