Earth Week underway as UN committee debates plastics treaty

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On the eve of an international conference to discuss a global treaty on plastic pollution, Earth Day 2024 on Monday will feature events ranging from beach cleanups and seminars to environmental protests in Seoul, South Korea, to highlight the planet’s growing problem with plastics. became apparent.

Since the first Earth Day in 1970, plastic has become more ubiquitous in our environment. According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Commission to develop internationally binding instruments on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment, it is now considered a “global crisis”.

“Climate change is a fundamental threat to the planet,” Leonardo Trasande, a pediatrician and researcher and professor at New York University, told reporters at the Association of Environmental Journalists meeting in Philadelphia in early April. That’s exactly what it is,” he said.

Billions of plastic debris seep into waterways and oceans, are consumed in drinking and food, and are found in the internal organs of humans and wildlife. A paper published in 2023 by the National Library of Medicine and others shows that microplastics can negatively impact hormones and cause a variety of health problems.

In the run-up to Earth Day 2024, EarthDay.org organizers promote the theme ‘Earth vs. Plastics’, calling for significant reductions in plastic production and waste streams, and signing a petition in support of the treaty. called on people to do so. Additionally, Earth Day events are being planned across the country.

On Tuesday in Ottawa, Canada, a United Nations committee will begin a week of meetings to reach agreement on a draft agreement on plastics in the environment. This will be the fourth such meeting since 2022, when the United Nations agreed to develop a treaty to curb the flow of plastic into the environment.

Below is a breakdown of some key terms and key issues you can expect to see discussed.

What is microplastic?

According to ocean conservation group Oceana, plastic is found in every corner of the world, including in drinking water, beer, salt and honey. While some may think of plastic pollution as plastic bags and soda bottles, it’s the tiniest particles, microplastics and nanoplastics, that are causing major concern.

For example, microplastics are tiny polymer particles less than 5 millimeters long and no bigger than a grain of rice. These come from plastic bottles, synthetic fibers in clothing, car tires, and other products because plastic breaks down slowly.

“What impact do these microplastics and even smaller pieces of plastic, known as nanoplastics, have on human health in the short or long term? “Furthermore, we know very little about what kind of impact it will have.” It can affect the health of sea turtles and other animals that live in the ocean. ”

What is nanoplastic?

According to the National Nanotechnology Initiative, nanoplastics are even smaller, at just one billionth of a meter. By comparison, a human DNA strand is 2.5 nanometers in diameter, and a human hair is approximately 80,000 to 100,000 nanometers wide, the initiative says.

How has the use of plastic increased?

Annual production of plastics, including polymer resins and fibers, will increase from 2 million tons in 1950 to 400 million tons in 2019, according to Our World in Data, based on a 2023 paper on plastic production published in the journal Science Advances. It increased to 59.75 million tons. It is estimated that by 2022, plastic production will exceed 400 million tons.

Estimates suggest that less than 10% of plastic waste is recycled in the United States, with the majority heading to landfills.

Why is plastic harmful?

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the United Nations, plastic and the particles it produces are found from the arctic tundra to the deep ocean. This includes large objects such as bottles, jugs, and plastic bags that float in the ocean or wash up on shore, which recent studies have linked to an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and death. This includes everything down to the particles that are found.

One study found that bottled water may contain 10 to 100 times more plastic debris than previously thought, while other studies found that it could be found in clouds, rain, and pregnant women. It has been discovered that microplastics are present in the placenta.

For some, bigger concerns than the wave of plastic debris are chemicals and pollutants linked to endocrine disruption and other abnormalities in the human body, as well as harmful fossil fuel emissions from plastic production.

Research shows that microplastics accumulate chemicals and pathogens on their surfaces. “Microplastics are likely drug delivery systems,” Trasande said. “It’s the chemicals that are on them that are causing the damage.”

What does the plastics treaty discussion involve?

In an effort similar to the 2015 Paris talks that produced a global treaty on climate change, the U.N. committee aims to build consensus among world governments on polymers, waste management, trade, pollution, financing and technology. We plan to discuss it.

Reuters reported that many plastics and petrochemical producing countries, including China, Saudi Arabia and Iran, do not support language that supports production limits.

Last week, ahead of the treaty negotiations, the American Chemistry Council, a trade group for U.S. chemical manufacturers, published an Oxford Economics study that concluded that limiting the production of virgin plastics would result in “significant economic costs.”

The study, commissioned by the International Council of Chemical Societies, concluded that “implementation of the proposed plastics production cap will have unintended global consequences beyond the plastics industry.”

The State Department said on its plastics and treaties webpage that the United States supports the development of an “ambitious global agreement on plastic pollution with universal obligations throughout the lifespan of plastics.”

What happens to plastic in the ocean?

The main focus of the proposed international treaty is plastics in the marine environment.

Millions of tons of microplastics, ranging from the width of a pencil to the size of a sesame seed, are entering the ocean, according to the National Institutes of Health. Particles travel through the food chain to people and also attract pollutants and transport them to new environments.

According to Oceana, an estimated 33 billion pounds of plastic ends up in the ocean every year, the equivalent of two garbage trucks every minute. The group cited a December 2022 national poll by Ipsos that found 83% of U.S. voters are concerned about single-use plastic products and 73% support a moratorium on construction of new plastic production facilities. It was revealed that he was doing so.

April Burt, a conservation scientist at the University of Oxford, said her research in the Seychelles archipelago in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa reveals “an enormous accumulation of marine plastic pollution hitting the islands from both maritime and international sources”. He said it was highlighted.

But it’s not too late to stem the flow, she says. “A global plastics treaty gives us an opportunity to turn the tide on plastic pollution, from policies around plastic manufacturing to retailer responsibility and tackling legacy plastics.”

Contributed by: USA TODAY reporters Elizabeth Wise and Doyle Rice

Dinah Boyles Pulver covers climate and the environment for USA TODAY. Contact us at dpulver@gannett.com or @dinahvp.

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