Prove your humanity

Representatives from 175 countries met in Paris last week for the second of five planned sessions to hammer out an international agreement to reduce global plastic pollution by 2040. The goal of the UN’s Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for Plastics is to have a binding treaty by 2024. But it’s been slow going. Some countries are pushing for international targets, and others want nation-specific goals.

Another point of contention is whether the focus should be on new plastic production or on better recycling. The next scheduled meeting for countries to continue to work on the UN treaty is in November in Nairobi.

To get a more local perspective on the negotiations, The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with Sherri Mason, Ph.D., who researches freshwater plastic pollution and is the Director of Sustainability at Penn State Behrend.

Listen to the interview:

Kara Holsopple: What’s the scope of the plastic pollution problem as you see it, and what happens if the problem isn’t addressed soon?

Sherri Mason: I think probably the best way to wrap our heads around the seriousness of the problem is to remember that the United Nations does rank plastic pollution second only to climate change with regard to our ability to survive as a species. That’s the importance of it.

We try to put numbers on it, but the numbers are so large that I really think it’s difficult for them to have a meaningful impression on people. Something like 11 million metric tonnes are dumped into the ocean every year. Even those estimates are really rough because we just don’t have good data on waste management practices. 

“The United Nations does rank plastic pollution second only to climate change with regard to our ability to survive as a species.”

And then you get into, well, the ten most polluted rivers are all in South Asian countries, which leads to the implication that the problem is located there. A whole lot of the plastic within those rivers is stuff that was shipped from the United States and the U.K. It gets shipped there for recycling. And a lot of what is shipped for the purpose of recycling can’t be recycled.

One of the points that [UN negotiators] have been discussing is a lot of people, when they think of plastic pollution, think of it as being an end-of-life problem, but it’s not. The reality is that plastic starts to pollute from the moment that fossil fuels are extracted from the ground since 99 percent of plastics come from fossil fuels.

One of the things at the very beginning of the negotiations that were happening last week was how are they defining the scope of the problem. Are they only going to focus this treaty on the end of life, or are they going to be much more inclusive of the entire life cycle?

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Kara Holsopple: Countries didn’t get into the meat of the issues until later in the week at the Paris negotiations. But this group, the High Ambition Coalition, which includes the EU, Japan, and island nations, is pushing for global targets to reduce plastic production and the use of certain chemicals in plastic production. And other countries want to focus more on recycling — those tend to be the oil and gas-producing countries. How do you see this split in priorities? 

Sherri Mason: It really comes down to who’s benefiting and who’s dealing with the outcomes. As there is a push worldwide to move transportation away from fossil fuels into renewable energies, fossil fuel industries are seeing plastics as their plan B.

This is exactly why countries that have a lot of investment in fossil fuels and are continuing this exponential investment in fossil fuels are pushing for this treaty to be focused on end-of-life as opposed to the production side, because they are seeing plastics as the way to continue our global addiction to fossil fuels and to support their industries moving forward and all the profit that they’re making. 

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Kara Holsopple: The U.S. is not one of the countries pushing for the mandatory reduction of plastic production, and it supports countries coming up with their own national targets for curbing pollution. What do you hope the U.S. will do going forward in these negotiations?

Sherri Mason: I’d like to see it reverse course, but I think that that’s highly unlikely. But I would like to see our national representatives look at the science. The science is becoming more and more clear. Just this morning, I was reading another article talking about how there is a connection between plastics and the chemicals used in plastics and neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

So when you have that kind of science coming out, when we know that this is in our blood, our lungs, we know it’s crossing the placental boundary, and it’s invading our children before they’re even born. When we see that science and this body of science is becoming every day just kind of more and more bolstered, I would like our representatives to look at that science and to act accordingly. 

As a plastic pollution researcher, I frequently get asked, and I like to say that I’m not anti-plastic; I’m anti-stupid plastic. I’m not advocating for a complete elimination of plastics. I know it’s a process.

I think most nations that are advocating for some kind of legislation around plastics production and the reduction of the chemicals that are used in plastics are focused on that. It’s about turning the tide and really thinking about which plastics we manufacture, how they’re manufactured and doing it in such a way that it makes sense. 

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Kara Holsopple: When you say stupid plastics, I’m guessing you mean single-use plastics like plastic bags and plastic straws.

Sherri Mason: Absolutely, that is exactly what I mean. 40 to 50 percent of plastics fall into this single-use plastic category. So it’s the bags, the bottles, the straws, the take-out containers. And these are all things for which we have readily available replacements.

Kara Holsopple: And this is the stuff that you find the remnants of a lot in the Great Lakes and in your research?

Sherri Mason: Absolutely. We’re in the process of finishing up a study where we’re looking at the movement of plastics from land to water. And I can tell you the number one thing we find is plastic bottles. It’s beverage bottles, things like Pepsi, Coke, Gatorade, and bottled water. And that’s the number one thing. I think we can find a better way to get hydrated. 

Kara Holsopple: What’s the most important aspect of the plastic pollution problem that an international treaty could address? If you were writing this treaty, what would be the most important thing that you would address? 

Sherri Mason: I think what’s most important is that you put in place binding regulations that level the playing field. Right now there’s no incentive for people to do the right thing because it’s probably going to cost more. You really need to have everybody playing by the same rules in order to incentivize this change.

We always talk about how plastic is so cheap. Well, that’s because the production of it is highly subsidized in places like the United States and Saudi Arabia, and when it comes to waste, that infrastructure is being borne by the taxpayer, not by the companies who ultimately are responsible for that waste. By taking out those externalized costs and making them real, you can really level the playing field so that going to truly circular and sustainable packaging and materials also makes economic sense.

Sherri Mason, Ph.D., researches freshwater plastic pollution and is the Director of Sustainability at Penn State Behrend.