Representatives of 175 nations have been meeting since 28 May at UNESCO headquarters in Paris for a second round of negotiations for an international agreement on plastic pollution.

The scale of this pollution continues to grow. The world produces twice as much of this waste as twenty years ago, or 353 million tonnes in 2019, according to estimates by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). While this figure fell in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it has since started to rise again.

The vast majority of this waste is landfilled, incinerated or "poorly managed", i.e. it is abandoned or not disposed of properly. Only 9% of plastic waste is recycled.

Increasing plastic recycling may seem like a logical way to turn waste into resources. But recent studies suggest that this process has its own environmental and health risks, including high levels of microplastics and harmful toxins produced by the process that can be dangerous to people, animals and the environment.


Microplastic pollution

"We found some pretty scary amounts, to be honest," says Erina Brown, a plastics expert and lead author of a research report on microplastic runoff from recycling centers, published in May 2023.

The British recycling centre where Erina Brown conducted her studies used large amounts of water (common practice in the recycling industry) to sort, shred and separate plastics before they were composed and processed into pellets for resale.

His research focuses on the rate of microplastics (plastic particles smaller than 5 mm) released into water during this process.

"There were 75 billion particles per cubic meter in the wash water," she explains. "About 6 percent of all plastics entering the facility were then released into the water as microplastics, even with the filtration [system]."

Scientists continue to study the potential risks of microplastics to human health. They are thought to carry pathogenic organisms that act as disease vectors in the environment, where many plastic particles produced by recycling are likely to end up.


Water used in recycling centers around the world often passes through wastewater treatment facilities, which "are simply not designed to filter microplastics of this size," Brown said.

Microplastics captured in sewage sludge are often inadvertently applied in fields as fertilizer, while those remaining in treated water enter local waterways and beyond: a study published in March showed that microplastics from European rivers had spread into Arctic seas.

More than two-thirds of UN member states agreed in March to draft a legally binding agreement on plastic pollution. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which is hosting the negotiations, has published a roadmap to reduce plastic waste by 80% by 2040.

However, some environmental groups believe that the three key areas of action defined – reuse, recycling and redirection towards alternative materials – are a concession to the global plastics and petrochemical industry, as they downplay the need to drastically reduce plastic use.

Dangers of recycling

The release of microplastics is not the only flaw in the system. Recycling involves working with unregulated toxic chemicals.

According to a United Nations report published this month, plastics contain as many as 13,000 chemicals, 3,200 of which have "hazardous properties" that can affect human health and the environment. However, as Greenpeace recently pointed out, many other products have never been evaluated and could also be toxic.

In addition, "only a very, very small proportion of these chemicals are regulated globally," says Therese Karlsson, scientific and technical advisor at the International Persistent Organic Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN). "Since there is no transparency [in the market], people have no way of knowing which plastics contain toxic chemicals and which do not."

The risk posed by these chemicals increases with recycled plastics, as products of unknown composition are heated and mixed. "The result is a completely unknown product that is being reintroduced to the market," warns Therese Karlsson.

The Greenpeace report also describes increased health risks for workers at recycling centres exposed to toxic chemicals, including long-term health problems such as cancer and malfunctioning reproductive systems.

It also finds higher levels of toxic chemicals in recycled plastics than in virgin plastics, including kitchenware, children's toys and food packaging.

The spread doesn't stop there. "We have done studies on eggs that are near places where plastics are recycled and we have found that these chemicals enter the food chain," warns Therese Karlsson. "Plastics can serve as carriers for these chemicals, even in very remote locations."

Plastic production, a "time bomb"

The share of plastic waste recycled worldwide is expected to reach 17% by 2060, according to OECD figures. But recycling more is not a silver bullet, because after one or two recycling, most plastics are no longer reusable.

"There's a myth about plastic recycling: if the quality is good, plastic can be recycled into bottles," says Natalie Fée, founder of City to Sea, a British environmental charity.

"But as it goes through the system, plastic becomes less and less good. It is recycled into drain pipes or sometimes fleece clothing. But these items cannot be recycled afterwards."

This makes it difficult to say that recycled plastic is a sustainable material, Graham Forbes, head of the global plastics campaign at Greenpeace USA, said this week.

"Plastics have no place in a circular economy. It is clear that the only real solution to end plastic pollution is to massively reduce plastic production." In addition, it is impossible to increase recycling at the same rate as the amount of plastic waste produced, which is expected to almost triple by 2060.

"We won't get away with recycling," says Therese Karlsson. "Not like it works today. Because today, plastic recycling doesn't work." She hopes that negotiations in Paris for a treaty on plastic pollution will lead to progress on this issue.


Plastic pollution: "High-risk plastics must be eliminated" © France24

Long and complicated negotiations

On the occasion, a coalition of 55 countries called for restrictions on certain hazardous chemicals and bans on problematic plastic products that are difficult to recycle and often end up in the wild.

"Plastic pollution is a ticking time bomb as well as a scourge already present," French President Emmanuel Macron said in a video message at the opening of the conference.

"We must definitively put an end to a globalized and unsustainable model of producing plastic in China or OECD countries, and then exporting it as waste to developing countries, which are less well equipped with waste treatment systems."

Therese Karlsson, who is attending the negotiations in Paris, sees a reason for hope. "The plastics treaty is an incredible opportunity to protect human health and the environment from this pollution. This would require phasing out toxic chemicals from plastics, ensuring transparency throughout the life cycle of plastics and reducing production."

However, the reduction in plastic production is reluctant to do so by several countries, which prefer to insist on recycling and better waste management. This is the case of China, the United States, Saudi Arabia and more generally the OPEC countries, which intend to protect their petrochemical industry.

That is why this week of negotiations in Paris is only the second step in a long and complicated process. Three more sessions are planned: one in November, then two more next year, with a view to the adoption of this treaty on plastic pollution in 2025.

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