Why science should be at centre of plastic treaty talks

When plastics are reused, or recycled, it means the toxic chemicals in the original product circulate into the new products and continue to expose people and the environment to harm. [iStockphoto]

In March 2022, the United Nations Environment Assembly adopted resolution 5/14 towards addressing plastic pollution. The adoption illustrates how plastic pollution is a serious environmental problem at a global scale. It affirms the urgent need to strengthen global coordination, cooperation, governance and immediate action toward its long-term elimination.

The third session of the Plastics Intergovernmental Negotiation Committee in Nairobi, aims to establish a global commitment, promote sustainable practices, and eliminate plastic pollution with the involvement of stakeholders; scientists, lobby groups academia, and communities. Initially, the treaty centered on the visible and physical waste management crisis of plastics. However, lobby groups have been calling for a plastic treaty that goes beyond the visible impacts to address threats brought by chemicals in plastics that continue to pose a threat to health and the environment.

For the treaty to be meaningful, policymakers and government officials need up-to-date science to understand the plastics problem and create effective regulations built on scientific and policy expertise. According to research, toxic chemicals are used in plastics, and due to a lack of labelling and traceability, it becomes impossible to track them.

A recent study by the International Pollutants Elimination Network shows that toxic chemicals are present in toys, kitchen utensils, and other consumer products purchased from markets in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gabon, Jordan, Kenya, Morocco, Syria, Tanzania, and Tunisia. Brominated flame retardants regulated under the Stockholm Convention were found in consumer products from these countries at high concentrations, suggesting that the products were made of recycled plastic from plastic e-waste and end-of-life vehicles where BFRs are commonly used.

When plastics are reused, or recycled, it means the toxic chemicals in the original product circulate into the new products and continue to expose people and the environment to harm. This calls for immediate steps to significantly reduce plastic production and shift our materials to promote safer, sustainable materials. Some chemicals in plastics known as carcinogens can cause prostate and breast cancer.

Others are endocrine disruptors, meaning they disturb the hormonal system that balances everything in our bodies. Disturbing that system can result in an increased risk of infertility, obesity, and other serious conditions. Many of these plastics release hazardous chemicals that can be transferred from mother to child during pregnancy, threatening the health of future generations. When children are playing with the contaminated toys, they end up ingesting the contaminated plastic pellets thus causing health complications.

Due to loopholes in international regulations and abuses by corporations and countries that export plastic wastes that contain and release dangerous chemicals, countries at the receiving end experience greater health risks as well as management crises, leading to piles of unrecycled plastics. This calls for stronger global policies to end the crisis of toxic plastic.

Ms Kombo is Center For Environment Justice and Development communications adviser