UN environment group passes a resolution on plastic pollution. Scientists fear it's too late

Insidious microplastics are in our blood and in the food we eat. Are we too late to stop the plastic apocalypse?

By Eric Schank

Published May 5, 2022 6:52PM (EDT)

Large recycled plastic fish sculpture in Helsingor situated infront of the Kronborg Castle in Helsingor in Denmark (Getty Images/James D. Morgan)
Large recycled plastic fish sculpture in Helsingor situated infront of the Kronborg Castle in Helsingor in Denmark (Getty Images/James D. Morgan)

While the world's attention was fixated on the conflict in Ukraine, a landmark United Nations achievement flew under the radar in early March. At the fifth session of the UN Environment Programme in Nairobi, the global environmental authority turned its attention to plastic. Recognizing that plastic pollution has, simply put, spiraled out of control, the assembly passed a resolution to end plastic waste.

The resolution is certainly timely, given shocking recent discoveries about the extent of plastic pollution on Earth — which has penetrated into the human bloodsteam, resulted in humans consuming a credit card's worth of the stuff each week, and whose microparticles in the ocean now outnumber zooplankton. 

While the UN's recognition of the extent of the problem might seem a cause to celebrate, it seems rather to have struck a nerve for scientists.


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In a resounding show of support, delegations from 175 of 193 member states endorsed the resolution, a crowning achievement of the session. Treaty negotiations will begin May 30 to establish a legally binding international treaty limiting plastic waste by the end of 2024.

"The immense quantity and diversity of both plastics and plastic chemicals, the total weight of which exceeds the overall mass of all land and marine animals, already poses enormous challenges."

Regarded widely as a historic victory for environmental and global health, the resolution prompted dire warnings from scientists. Appearing in the journal Science, a letter from experts in a variety of related fields called for resolute caps on plastic pollution.

"Despite interventions by the industry and objections from the United States and other delegations, reducing plastics at the source by curbing production is critical," the letter asserted with its citations taking up almost as much space as its content. "The immense quantity and diversity of both plastics and plastic chemicals, the total weight of which exceeds the overall mass of all land and marine animals, already poses enormous challenges."

Though succinct, the message was clear: Preventing plastic pollution means no more plastic.

Their fears are not without substance. In the resolution, heavy emphasis was placed on downstream solutions, those that target pollution rather than its source, "to promote sustainable production and consumption of plastics through, among other things, product design and environmentally sound waste management, including through resource efficiency and circular economy approaches."

RELATED: What is microplastic anyway? Inside the insidious pollution that is absolutely everywhere

The latter essentially describes the platonic ideal of green economics, a closed-loop system in which everything can be recycled or reused and nothing leaks into the environment — a commendable and lofty goal indeed. As noted by the UNEP assembly, that would also necessitate putting an end to illegal exportation of plastics and other waste from wealthier nations to those in the Global South.

"Relying on those approaches alone is not going to reduce the production of plastic enough for us to not have an impact on the environment," Dr. Susanne Brander told Salon. 

An expert in environmental toxicology studying the impacts of microplastics on gene expression at Oregon State University, Brander was among nine experts that wrote the letter to the journal Science.

"Even when applying all political and technological solutions available today, including substitution, improved recycling, waste management, and circularity, annual plastic emissions to the environment can only be cut by 79% over 20 years," the letter read. "To fully prevent plastic pollution, the path forward must include a phaseout of virgin plastic production by 2040."

Luckily a 2021 study also published in Science by a whopping 30 authors did the heavy lifting to break down current solutions, challenges, and paths forward. Put briefly, they found "no silver bullet exists" to keep the 450 million tonnes of plastic currently produced a year out of the environment. Meanwhile, carbon emissions from the entire life cycle of plastics are predicted to rise from 4.5% to between 10 and 13% of the total carbon budget by 2050.

"Substantial commitments to improving the global plastic system are required from businesses, governments, and the international community to solve the ecological, social, and economic problems of plastic pollution and achieve near-zero input of plastics into the environment," the concluding paragraph of the study read.

The study found existing solutions including recycling, recovery, and replacing plastics with alternatives could only cut annual plastic pollution to 17.3 million tons by 2040, hence the urgency in the letter from scientists from Canada, Germany, India, Norway, Sweden, Turkey, the UK and the U.S. 

Plastics and their chemical constituents may well threaten human fertility and development as they accumulate.

"It's not dissimilar to other pollutant types like pesticides in runoff or industrial chemicals in runoff," Brander explained. "They're all contributing to some of the same problems, but plastics are unique in that they continue to break down."

"Further innovation in resource-efficient and low-emission business models, reuse and refill systems, sustainable substitute materials, waste management technologies, and effective government policies are needed," the report recommended. "Such innovation could be financed by redirecting existing and future investments in virgin plastic infrastructure,"

Much about the impact of heavy metal accumulation and health impacts on humans remains unknown, but what is known is enough to incite drastic action. Brander's own research investigates various effects this pollution has on the endocrine systems of aquatic life. While she hesitated to link plastic pollution to human growth and reproduction, endocrine disrupters including phthalates and bisphenols, chemical additives commonly found in plastics, have demonstrated comparable sub-lethal impacts on aquatic life, according to her research. Plastics and their chemical constituents may well threaten human fertility and development as they accumulate.

"It's not dissimilar to other pollutant types like pesticides in runoff or industrial chemicals in runoff," Brander explained. "They're all contributing to some of the same problems, but plastics are unique in that they continue to break down."

That makes microplastics particularly challenging to study. Concentrations in the environment can be difficult to measure because rather than dissipating, they disintegrate, yet still persist in the environment as they do so. Hence, microplastics are now in the food we eat, the water we drink, and accumulating inside humans just as in other organisms.

"We already know microplastics and plastics are inside our food, at least three thousand different species known to ingest or be entangled in plastics and microplastics, and now microplastics have been found in human placenta, in human lungs, and as of a couple of months ago, there was a peer-reviewed study done where microplastics were found in human blood," Dr. Tony Walker emphasized when speaking to Salon.

If their impact on other organisms are any indication, the consequences will be dire for human health. Specializing in remediation and impacts of environmental pollution at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Walker emphasized that only about 9% of recyclable waste is actually recycled worldwide currently.

"The only way we're going to improve impacts is by reducing how much we're making," Dr. Tony Walker told Salon. "There's no other way around it even with the proposition of a circular economy. That still relies on having so much infrastructure to make sure you're actually recapturing those plastics and you're not having leakage back out into the environment like we see with recycling."

Perpetuation of plastic production and protecting environmental and human health are mutually exclusive. Finding which plastics are toxic after they are in the environment and in our bodies later does not ensure the safety of the public, and is in fact impossible according to the team of scientists.

It is the pervasive nature of microscopic particles that led to the current sense of urgency on plastic pollution control. A decade ago, international cooperation would have been nearly impossible. How they will actually achieve such a task remains to be seen, but scientists are worried negotiations are doomed to repeat the failures of the Paris Agreement, which has not effectively moved member states of the UN to decisive carbon emissions reductions recommended by scientists and the UN's own reports from the IPCC.

"There's no reason not to act even if the cessation of the use of Virgin plastic has to be, of course, gradual," Brander stated frankly. "It's hard for me to see an argument for using a wait-and-see approach like we've done with so many other chemicals."

Read more Salon articles on plastic pollution:


Eric Schank

Eric Schank is a fellow at Salon writing for science and health. He holds a BA in environmental studies from Oberlin College.

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Environment Furthering Health Microplastics Pollution Recycling United Nations