Recycling: Plastics Require A Rethink

July 30, 2021
Policy paper promotes establishing a global treaty with three specific goals

Plastics presently pose a pair of profound predicaments. Their production usually depends on non-renewable feedstocks such as petroleum while their disposal often creates significant environmental damage. Efforts certainly have ramped up on both fronts. CP regularly covers developments related to using renewable materials or end-of-life plastics as feedstocks (e.g., “Hybrid Catalyst Targets End-of-Life Plastics,”  “Waste Polyolefins Become Feedstocks,” and “Circular Chemistry Spins Faster”). Likewise, we cover initiatives aimed at recycling, e.g., “Recycling Robots Rescue Soft-Plastic Refuse,” “Catalyst Promises to Ease Plastics Recycling,” and “Industry Breaks the Mold for Discarded Plastics.”

However, what’s really needed, argues a group of 14 political and environmental scientists from various universities as well as specialists from environmental non-governmental organizations and institutes around the globe, is an enforceable international treaty that takes a holistic approach to plastics. That’s the only way to effectively tackle the scale and global nature of the issues and their social, environmental and economic impacts, they reckon. The group makes its case in an article — “A Binding Global Agreement to Address the Life Cycle of Plastics”— that came out in July in Science.

Such an agreement should have three specific goals, they stress:


“Goal 1: Minimize virgin plastics production and consumption. Controlling and minimizing plastic pollution first and foremost requires an agreement on a progressively decreasing production allowance for virgin plastics...

“Goal 2: Facilitate safe circularity of plastics. A circularity goal for plastics will incentivize design for recycling, improve recycling rates, and foster the use of recycled content...

“Goal 3: Eliminate plastic pollution in the environment. This goal aims to safely remove and sustainably dispose of plastics accumulated on land, on waterways, and in oceans. It also aims at preventing those plastics currently in use from ending up in the environment because of their low value at end of life...”

The group hopes that the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) will consider launching an intergovernmental negotiating committee at its next decision-making meeting in February 2022. Any eventual agreement won’t begin to have an impact for several years after it comes into force, the authors note.

“Although a new agreement will come with costs, it will unlock sizable environmental, social and economic benefits,” the group concludes.

In response to the article, the American Chemistry Council, Washington, D.C., issued a statement that says, in part:

“America’s plastic makers agree that a global agreement could be effective in helping to accelerate an end to plastic waste, but we strongly believe that an agreement should focus on reusing our plastic resources in new manufacturing and result in a net benefit for the environment.

“...Instead of capping plastic production, we should focus on... increasing traditional recycling, expanding access to advanced recycling, setting a national standard to use more recycled material in packaging, and designing new packaging to be easily reused in new products.”

We can debate whether the approach proposed in the article really is viable, sensible and optimal. However, what we shouldn’t debate is the need to break the mold of how we approach the predicaments posed by plastics.

MARK ROSENZWEIG is Chemical Processing's Editor in Chief. You can email him at [email protected]
About the Author

Mark Rosenzweig | Former Editor-in-Chief

Mark Rosenzweig is Chemical Processing's former editor-in-chief. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers' magazine Chemical Engineering Progress. Before that, he held a variety of roles, including European editor and managing editor, at Chemical Engineering. He has received a prestigious Neal award from American Business Media. He earned a degree in chemical engineering from The Cooper Union. His collection of typewriters now exceeds 100, and he has driven a 1964 Studebaker Gran Turismo Hawk for more than 40 years.