Recycling Alone Cannot Solve Global Plastics Pollution

An effective global plastics pollution elimination treaty must reduce plastic production first and foremost, then focus on improving plastic recycling.

How do you address global plastic pollution and begin to ease the chokehold grip plastics have on both people and the planet? This is the question being wrestled with by the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA). In March 2022, UNEA resolved to reduce plastic pollution through an internationally binding treaty to be finalized by the end of 2024. 

In the last four committee sessions about the global plastics treaty, including the most recent one in April held in Ottawa, Canada, oil-producing countries have tried to focus only on managing plastic waste. They want to avoid discussing the real issue: the unchecked production of plastic. During the negotiations, these countries have repeatedly challenged the idea of addressing plastic waste at every stage of its life cycle.

Conversely, environmental justice and plastic pollution elimination advocates are calling for the reduction of plastic production, first and foremost. There is simply too much plastic produced today, with exponential increases planned for the near future. We urgently need to turn off the tap on plastics production to address plastic pollution. To do so, we need comprehensive systemic solutions addressing the full life cycle of plastics. 

As recyclers, Eco-Cycle knows firsthand we cannot recycle our way out of the plastics crisis 

Eco-Cycle is the operator of the Boulder County Recycling Center, and we know that most of the plastic in production was not designed to be recycled. Unlike the aluminum, steel, and paper industries, the plastics industry buys back very little of its own products for remanufacturing, leaving recyclers with  niche, “downcycling” markets for products, like carpeting and clothing, rather than more circular solutions such as making more plastic containers. There are nowhere near enough of these markets to handle the ever-increasing volumes of plastic. Plastic products vary widely, using over seven different polymers and any combination of chemical additives—many of which can be very toxic. This variation in products makes the material difficult to sort and even harder to sell as a feedstock to make new products.

While the petrochemical/plastics industry prefers to blame consumers and recyclers for plastic pollution, the real problem is one they created and are expanding. They are simply making too much plastic, most of which cannot be recycled.

Eco-Cycle Supporters Help Influence Global Treaty Negotiations 

Eco-Cycle was represented at the global plastics treaty negotiations by the Alliance for Mission-Based Recycling (AMBR), an organization Eco-Cycle cofounded in 2019 along with three others: Eureka Recycling in Minneapolis, Minnesota; Recycle Ann Arbor in Michigan; and the Ecology Center of Berkeley, California. AMBR works to evolve recycling systems to better protect people and the planet, mitigate climate change, and strengthen communities. 

As mission-based, Zero Waste recyclers, AMBR is advocating for the United States delegation to lead the demand for a strong and effective global treaty that addresses the full life cycle of plastics and prioritizes a significant reduction in plastic production.

Martin Bourque, AMBR steering committee member and executive director of the Ecology Center, attended the negotiations as an observer while representing the recycling industry. Bourque noted the impact of consumer pressure on the packaging industry to reduce plastic pollution. At the negotiations, global consumer goods brands demonstrated an unprecedented willingness to support global regulations, marking a significant divergence from the petrochemical industry’s ambitions to limit such regulations. Folks like you, supporters of Eco-Cycle living out the Zero Waste ethos, are making a real difference! 

Reduction Throughout the Life Cycle of Plastics on a Global Scale

Every stage of plastics—from resource extraction to disposal—contributes significantly to climate change and social injustices. With this global plastics treaty, plastic reduction advocates are pushing for strategies that authentically address the life cycle of plastics, including:

  • Mandatory targets to cap and dramatically reduce virgin plastic production. This includes the elimination of single-use plastics and other nonessential, unnecessary, or unsafe and unsustainable plastic products and applications—including plastics chemicals and intentionally added microplastics. 
  • Legally binding, time-bound, and ambitious targets to implement and scale up reuse and refill to accelerate the transition away from single-use plastics. 
  • Reject false solutions, regrettable substitutes, and polluting and ineffective techno-fixes such as “chemical recycling,” incineration, waste-to-energy, plastic credits, and other schemes. Innovations should be applied to improving what works in recycling instead of perpetuating business as usual and supporting continued plastics production and pollution.
  • Regulation or bans on toxic chemicals in all virgin and recycled plastics based on groups of chemicals. This includes additives (e.g., PFAS, brominated flame retardants, phthalates, bisphenols) as well as notoriously toxic polymers (PVC and polystyrene). 
  • Transparent end markets for plastics recycling. Plastics recycling from wealthy countries should not become plastic pollution in poor countries.  
  • A just transition to safer and more sustainable livelihoods for workers and communities across the plastics supply chain, including those in the informal waste sector, and addressing the needs of frontline communities affected by plastics production, incineration, and open burning. 
  • Provisions that hold polluting corporations and plastics-producing countries accountable for the profound harms to human rights, human health, ecosystems, and economies arising from the production, deployment, and disposal of plastics. 

What’s Next for the Global Plastics Treaty

The next negotiating committee is scheduled to convene on November 25, 2024, in Busan, Republic of Korea. In advance of this meeting, more than 34 countries have signed on to a nonbinding declaration, Bridge to Busan, urging the treaty negotiations to address the full life cycle of plastics, including their production. The United States has not signed the declaration. 

As we move into the intersessional period and prepare for the next set of negotiations, Eco-Cycle, as represented by AMBR, continues to urge the Biden administration to be a global leader and embrace the Zero Waste hierarchy, as determined by the Environmental Protection Agency—reduce, reuse, and then recycle—in its negotiations for the treaty. 

Stay tuned for more reports on the global plastics treaty, and read more about Martin Bourque’s report on AMBR’s website.