Three common misconceptions holding back the fight against plastic pollution

21 June 2024

Alongside Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group (CAG, India) Consumers International is bringing the perspectives and insights of our 200+ membership of consumer associations to negotiations for an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution. 

In the coming months, ahead of critical intersessional work prior to the 5th round of negotiations, we will engage with key stakeholders, partners and state delegations to advocate for essential policy and market shifts to reduce plastic pollution by 80% - all while supporting consumers and businesses to overcome the challenges related to affordability and accessibility. 

In this blog, Camilla Cosse Braslavsky, Sustainable Consumption Specialist at Consumers International, explores some of the common misconceptions she has come up against while taking part in the negotiations, and the change needed to turn talk into action. 

I recently had the privilege of representing Consumers International at the 4th meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-4), where member states are tasked with a monumental challenge, to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution. 

Poring over my notes amidst the bustling atmosphere of the Shaw Centre in Ottawa, where over 3,200 delegates from over 180 countries had gathered for the negotiations, my thoughts drifted to a conversation I'd had almost 12 years ago, working as a field intern for the WWF in Madagascar. I was the only social scientist among a group of interns, the rest of whom specialised in various natural sciences. At the time, I had a bad habit of chewing the cap of cheap ballpoint pens. A tic copied from my mother, it made me feel close to her though she had long passed away. But my scientist colleagues were horrified. They urged that I cease my habit, lecturing me about the toxic effects of plastic. At the time, I laughed off their warnings. 

Fast forward, as I prepare to reiterate many of her arguments on behalf of Consumers International and our membership of 200+ consumer associations around the world, I consider how casually I dismissed the idea that plastic could be so harmful. How many more misconceptions are holding back the fight against plastic pollution? 

Misconception 1: Plastics are not harmful

It's been over a decade since I was first warned that chewing on plastic was potentially harmful. I assumed that, surely, the material used to package our food, beverages and hygiene products must be safe. That is misconception number 1: that plastics are safe. It persists despite mounting evidence which suggests otherwise. Long-term studies by IUCN, UNDP and many others have proven this. 

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of synthetic chemicals that have been widely used in various consumer, commercial, and industrial products since the 1950s. These chemicals, including perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), are known for their resistance to heat, grease, water, and stains, making them prevalent in everyday items such as food packaging, cookware, clothing, and firefighting foam. Studies and reports have consistently linked PFAS to birth defects, cancer, immune disruption, liver injury, and other health issues. 

And, of course, the risks are not limited to our health. Plastic pollution presents a danger to the marine ecosystem, increasing the likelihood of marine creatures consuming, suffocating from, or becoming ensnared in plastic waste. Studies show that over 1,500 species in both marine and land environments have been documented to ingest plastics. Plastic pollution also severely affects soil and groundwater, as well as the greenhouse gas emissions of production and end-of-use pollution that accumulate and damage the atmosphere.

Despite mounting evidence against the ‘chemicals of concern’ present in plastics and their toxicity and contamination, regulatory actions have been slow. The plastics treaty is a crucial, collective chance to catch up.   

Misconception 2: Pollution is just about waste. 

Back in my pen-chewing days, I at least knew to refrain from recklessly throwing my pen cap out into the Madagascan rainforest. I also knew that there was a lot more to the story. 

Since assuming my role as a delegate for Consumers International in our advocacy for a treaty that works for consumers, I've been confronted with a second striking misconception, one which comes up time and again in negotiations: the belief that ‘plastic pollution’ is solely a problem of waste at the end of use, also known as a downstream issue. The UN´s definition of pollution encompasses ‘presence of substances and heat in environmental media (air, water, land) whose nature, location, or quantity produces undesirable environmental effects; and ‘activity that generates pollutants.’

To see the full picture, we need to assess the impact of plastic pollution across the entire lifecycle of the product, from the extraction of the initial resources required, through the production process, to the disposal and subsequent release of any remnants into the environment after its use.  

Despite their versatility, plastics are foreign to the natural world, they are industrially produced materials that take over 100 years to decompose. At the end of use, once I've chewed it down to the nub and thrown it away, my pen cap will release even more greenhouse gas emissions, breaking down into tiny pieces, known as ‘microplastics’.  

With delegates meeting at INC-4 from the highest-income countries to the smallest islands, from small non-profits to major industry players, discussions surrounding the management of plastic pollution are both intense and multifaceted. Understanding the full life-cycle of plastic pollution can help illuminate the complexities behind the debates which took place in Ottawa.

Misconception 3: A world without plastic pollution is not possible

The major hurdle the negotiations need to overcome is also what I see as misconception number 3: The persistent belief in the importance and ubiquity of plastics. This comes coupled with: The perceived lack of viable alternatives. 

There is a pervasive assumption that commercial activity is somehow detached from the well-being of our planet and its inhabitants. That pollution is the price we pay for a functioning marketplace. But there are powerful examples of innovation underway. Like edible and biodegradable packaging for beverages and condiments made from brown seaweed a renewable natural resource, solid shampoos and body products. There are complexities here. But while substantial investments, in the range of billions of USD dollars for the highest performing companies, are directed towards innovation in products and industries, we should call on producers to be far more ambitious in their efforts to discover and advance environmentally sustainable and safe substitutes. If we can put someone on the moon, and operate self-functioning satellites in space, we can also realise our global vision for a fair, safe, sustainable, and pollution-free marketplace. 

At Consumers International, we want to see a ‘Plastics Treaty’ that is a catalyst for environmentally sound innovation. This could mean informing companies to recourse their research and development investments, setting common goals for state subsidies, and scaling up technological innovation. 

Plastics are cheap, convenient, and readily available. No wonder we struggle to accept the toxic truth about these materials. But at this moment in time - with the knowledge that we have we must ask difficult questions and drive forward the change needed.  

That’s why Consumers International is bringing our expertise on building a safe, fair and sustainable marketplace to negotiators at global plastics treaty discussions. You can read our reflections on discussions so far in our Plastics Treaty live blog 

A final thought. Amidst the necessary innovation that requires guidance and support through internationally agreed rules, we should consider heeding the warnings of many indigenous communities. Their experience can guide us in a vital reassessment of our values and relationship with nature, ultimately leading to a re-design of our marketplace. I look forward to a treaty that upholds visions of an ambitious future. One where I can ease my anxiety by simply chewing on a biodegradable pen-cap. The only risk is accidental choking. 

Our key priorities for a treaty that protects and empowers consumers

  1. Alignment with the UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection
  2. Non-plastic alternatives are accessible, available, and affordable to consumers
  3. Consumers are provided with adequate and transparent information about plastic products and packaging
  4. Definitive targets and timelines for the reduction of plastic pollution
  5. The treaty has legally binding language throughout which ensures government and business are held accountable.