Microplastic Mayhem

Activists this week disrupted global plastic treaty negotiations in Canada in an attempt to convince world governments to “end the plastic era,” and their efforts will echo well beyond the negotiating table in Ottawa.

This Week's Trend In Brief:

  • This week, activists descended upon Ottawa, Canada, where the United Nations Environment Program is hosting negotiations on a global plastic treaty environmentalists hope brings stronger restrictions on plastic production, arguing that traditional mitigation strategies are no longer enough.

  • This increase in activist pressure at the negotiations highlights a growing and deeper focus on plastics among environmental groups who once promoted practices like recycling but now argue anything less than a complete halt on plastic production and use are ineffective half measures.

  • To advance their campaign, activists and their allies in media in recent months have increased their alarmist claims around “microplastics” entering the water supply and even our bloodstreams.

  • Even environmental poster child Patagonia found itself caught in this scrutiny, with recent reports claiming the brand’s “major microplastic problem” undermines its sustainability cred.

  • As negotiators at the talks weigh the concerns of climate activists and industry alike, businesses cannot sit idly by. Instead, companies operating throughout the plastics value chain – from feedstock providers to material producers to users –must understand the competing pressures, who is driving them, and how to ensure facts and science are not lost in the fray. 

Digging Deeper:

This week, activists descended on the United Nations Environment Program’s fourth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee in Ottawa, Canada, where leaders and activists from across the world came together to debate plastic’s future in society. This year, the U.N. has devoted the session to the creation of “an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution,” aiming to determine how to address concerns over plastics while “enabling [a] just transition.” Commentary around the negotiating session claims plastic production and related pollution are one of the most profound global environmental challenges facing the world, and the United Nations is under pressure to form an agreement by its deadline at the end of 2024. However, finalizing and implementing a global plastics treaty is a contentious process involving many stakeholders with competing interests.
Environmental advocates at the talks range from major international groups to local U.S. activist organizations, all gathered together to argue a strict global plastics treaty is an essential part of the energy transition. Activists with the Break Free From Plastics coalition staged a march at the start of the negotiations calling for a treaty “that significantly reduces plastic production and centers the frontline communities most impacted by the plastics crisis.” Center for International Environmental Law campaigner Daniela Gonzales contended delegates at the talks “must act like our lives depend on it—because they do.” Major funders are also involved in the negotiations. Michael Bloomberg’s $85 million Beyond Petrochemicals campaign is not only at the talks directly, but it commissioned a study released last week that alleges “the plastics industry is undermining the world’s efforts to address climate change.” Environmental activists applying this pressure are being heard, and the U.S. State Department even postponed a meeting with industry stakeholders to allow a meeting with activist groups to run overtime. While plastic pollution is not a new target for these environmental activists, even environmentally friendly solutions are now coming under fire.
Indeed, this increase in activist pressure at the negotiations highlights a growing and deeper focus on plastics among environmentalists, who now take aim at previous plastics practices some of them once encouraged. In February 2024, the Center for Climate Integrity recently published a report claiming plastic recycling “is a decades-long campaign of fraud and deception” orchestrated by “petrochemical companies, their trade associations, and the front groups that represent their interests.” According to the Center, the companies and associations “should be held accountable for their campaign of deception much like the producers of tobacco, opioids, and toxic chemicals that engaged in similar schemes.” Similarly, Plastic Pollution Coalition communications manager Erica Cirino claimed it is “clear recycling is not enough to solve the plastic pollution crisis” because even if recycling rates were higher, the practice “could never come close” to solving the “health, justice, socio-economic, and environmental crises” caused by plastic pollution. 
This deeper focus on plastics has come into stark relief at the negotiations in Ottawa, as environmentalists and their allies in the media have spent months raising alarmist claims about “microplastics” in our water and bodies. Last October, environmental advocates called microplastics “a threat to the stability of Earth’s operating system because of their persistence in the environment and potential toxicity to humans and wildlife.” Advocates are taking aim at companies across the world, alleging consumer brands like Coca-Cola and Nestlé are responsible for more than half of harmful plastic pollution worldwide. Even environmental poster child Patagonia found itself indicted over what one media outlet called a “major microplastic problem” in their supposedly sustainable products. Despite Patagonia’s long support for more than 1,300 environmental advocacy groups and self-imposed “Earth Tax” that contributes 1% of its sales to conservation efforts organized by nonprofit groups, the outdoor gear brand is facing pressure from advocates over microplastics from its products that “can get flushed into waterways, sneaking through wastewater systems.” Patagonia’s use of recycled polyester “more than any other fiber” may no longer be enough to retain the support of climate activists. According to Ocean Wise’s ocean pollution and plastics director Charli Cox, phasing out plastic products upstream entirely is the actual “solution rather than a kind of mitigation effort.”
While the Biden Administration’s representatives at the talks “have consistently clung to a middle ground position,” seemingly trying to balance the concerns of activists and industry, the pressure from environmental activists is only increasing, and companies within the plastics value chain need to prepare.  While activists demand the U.S. strive to secure the strongest possible treaty in order to “address all aspects of the plastic pollution crisis,” industry representatives are concerned restrictions could make manufacturers less competitive and jeopardize the benefits plastics can provide to the economy and environment. As negotiators at the talks weigh these competing pressures, companies operating across the plastics value chain– from feedstock providers to material producers to users –must understand the competing pressures, who is driving them, and how to ensure facts and science are not lost in the fray.

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