Technological watch

Plastic treaty talks go beyond recycling to add public health debate

One thing made clear during last week's plastic treaty talks is that any agreement will likely go beyond recycling and marine plastic pollution to also take on health issues related to additives in plastics and the impact of polymer manufacturing on communities.

Environmental groups at the talks, held Nov. 28 to Dec. 2 in Uruguay, worked to elevate health topics, and industry groups like the International Council of Chemical Associations acknowledged concerns from countries about additives in plastics.

Some environmental advocates said the talks in Uruguay, the first of five sessions to work out treaty details over the next two years, made it clear that health issues will be part of the final agreement.

"There is little doubt — the plastics treaty will be a global health treaty," said Giulia Carlini, a senior attorney with the Center for International Environmental Law in Washington, and a treaty delegate. "Over the last week, we have heard dozens of interventions from delegations that they want the treaty not only to protect the environment, but also health from the impacts of plastics.

"Critically, this demonstrates that there is appetite to regulate the very materials and chemicals that plastics are made of," she said.

ICCA, in its statement, said additives are tested thoroughly but it promised more public information.

"Nations and stakeholders raised concerns about chemical additives in plastics," ICCA said. "Although many governments already rigorously test and regulate chemical additives for safety, the plastics and chemical industry is embarking on potential pathways to improve transparency of additives used in plastics."

The International Pollutants Elimination Network, which also sent participants to the talks, released a report ahead of the discussions outlining concerns for the 160-plus countries that sent delegations.

An IPEN member group from Uruguay said they want diplomats crafting the treaty to consider how plastics in the environment and manufacturing impact communities, particularly in developing countries.

"It is critical for delegates to understand that toxic chemicals pose threats to our health and the environment throughout the plastics lifecycle," said María Isabel Cárcamo, coordinator of the local nonprofit RAP-AL Uruguay. "Especially in Latin America, Africa and Asia, the treaty must protect communities from plastic dumping that threatens the human right to healthy environments."

The Break Free From Plastic coalition said it felt the Uruguay talks saw a shift in the movement away from only considering plastics as an ocean issue.

"We've seen a clear policy and narrative shift from one only of plastic leakage into the ocean to one of upstream issues, toxicity and health-including interventions," the group said.

The talks also saw the formation of a Just Transition Initiative for waste pickers, the people who try to earn a living collecting waste for recycling, to participate fully in the negotiations. It also calls for financial help for the 20 million people worldwide who collect materials in the informal economy.

Publication date: 05/12/2022

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Last update: 2022-01-31