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The world can’t recycle its way out of the plastics crisis

The International Energy Agency projects that by 2050, more than half of all oil and gas will be used to make plastics and petrochemicals. This has enormous climate impacts.

Plastic waste and garbage on the beach in Costa del Este, Panama City, Panama, on Sept. 21.LUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty Images

While civil society voices struggled to be heard at the COP27 United Nations climate talks that ended Sunday in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, the fossil fuel industry faced no such challenge, sending a record 636 lobbyists to the talks. It is not surprising that the countries attending the talks failed to confront fossil fuels that are the primary cause of climate change despite urgent calls from more than 80 nations to do so. Governments and observers alike denounced the outcome as a “fiasco” that did little to avert future climate disasters.

That fiasco at Sharm El-Sheikh, and the decades of inertia preceding it, offer critical and timely lessons for nations as they meet next week to begin negotiating a new, legally binding treaty on a closely related challenge: the global plastic crisis.


There are an estimated 50 trillion to 75 trillion plastic particles in the world’s oceans and another 8 million to 10 million tons are added every year, with catastrophic impacts on marine wildlife and ecosystems. Damage to these ecosystems from plastic pollution causes an estimated $500 billion to $2.5 trillion a year in economic losses. But the costs don’t stop at the shoreline. Deloitte estimates that in North America alone plastic pollution in rivers and streams costs up to $600 million per year.

Nor do impacts end at the waters’ edge. Plastics contaminate commercially harvested fish and shellfish, fishmeal fed to animals, agricultural soils and food crops, tap and bottled water, and the air we breathe. An unfortunate but inevitable consequence of this pervasive pollution is that plastics are also showing up in human bodies: in our waste, lungs, blood, even in the placenta of pregnant people. An unknown but potentially enormous array of toxic chemicals can enter the human body via these plastics.


But the volume of toxins leaching from plastic products and particles is dwarfed by the pollutants being released into communities where plastics and petrochemicals are made, and where plastic’s oil and gas feedstocks are pumped from the ground. The risks from this pervasive pollution are particularly acute for the communities that live on the fence lines of these facilities and the front lines of the ongoing buildout of plastic and petrochemical infrastructure.

That buildout poses risks not only for the environment and human health, but for the global climate. Because 99 percent of what goes into plastic is fossil fuels, plastics are essentially fossil fuels in another form. As demand for oil and gas in energy and transport declines, fossil fuel producers are looking to plastics as a way to continue profiting from fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency projects that by 2050, more than half of all oil and gas will be used to make plastics and petrochemicals. This has enormous climate impacts. On our present trajectory, plastic production, use, and disposal could emit 56 gigatons of CO2 by 2050 — equivalent to 13 percent of the earth’s entire remaining carbon budget that keeps warming below the critical 1.5 degree Celsius threshold. These impacts would be compounded if plastic pollution disrupts natural carbon sinks in the ocean and soils. Accordingly, the plastics treaty is being hailed as the “most important climate deal” since the Paris Agreement.


The scale, scope, and diversity of these impacts explain why negotiators for the new plastics treaty are mandated to address not just plastic waste but the entire lifecycle of plastics, including the production that drives plastic pollution in all its forms, and why that mandate requires binding — not just voluntary — commitments. Put simply, the world cannot recycle its way out of the plastics crisis.

Last month, Greenpeace documented that less than 5 percent of all plastics used and discarded in the United States each year are actually recycled. It found that for all but a small subset of plastic products, the real recycling rates are even lower. The Greenpeace investigation proves yet again that for most products and for most communities, plastic recycling is simply a myth.

But widespread belief in that myth is not an accident. The plastics industry has long been aware that plastic recycling does not work at any meaningful scale, yet continues to promote it as a solution to the plastic crisis.

If this story sounds familiar, it should.

Massachusetts was among the first states to launch an investigation into the oil industry’s role in the accelerating climate crisis. That investigation led the state to sue ExxonMobil for misleading the public and investors about the climate risks inherent in its fossil fuel products. In April, California launched a similar investigation into the role of plastic producers in the plastic crisis, beginning with a subpoena to Exxon, also a leading plastic producer. A parallel investigation by Massachusetts could examine the impacts of industry greenwashing on the state, even as legislators advance efforts to address the plastic crisis at state and local levels.


But just as confronting climate change demands coordinated national and global action, so too does confronting the plastic crisis. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey have cosponsored the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, which would represent a vital first step in a national response to plastics pollution.

Having failed to learn the lessons from 30 years of failed climate negotiations, the United States is actively promoting the Paris Agreement as a model for the plastic negotiations. Rather than seek ambitious action to confront plastic production, US negotiators are calling for voluntary commitments, a major focus on recycling, and an approach that puts plastic producers at the negotiating table with the countries and communities plagued by plastic pollution. It is also spearheading a coalition of countries seeking to lower ambition for the plastics treaty. This approach has failed in the fight against fossil fuel-driven climate change. And people around the world are living with the accelerating consequences.


Markey sits on three Senate committees that will oversee US engagement in these negotiations, including the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As a major coastal state whose people and economy will be affected by the success or failure of the plastic treaty, Massachusetts has a big stake in getting it right. The people of Massachusetts have proven that they are ready to confront corporate deception and demand strong action to confront the climate crisis and the rising impacts of climate change, and have shown they are prepared to act on the root causes of the plastic crisis as well. They should expect nothing less from the government that represents them before the international community.

Negotiators should abandon the misplaced trust in the fossil fuel and plastics industry to help solve the problems its products create and its profits demand. The world missed that opportunity at the climate talks. It shouldn’t miss it again on plastics.

Carroll Muffett is president of the Center for International Environmental Law.