Plastics pollution and intergenerational fairness

Eight years after the Paris Climate Agreement, an initial round of negotiations over a legally binding international treaty on plastics pollution concluded last week. Following these new talks in Paris IF Researcher, Sylvan Lutz, highlights the intergenerational dangers posed by plastics.


Given the known and unknown dangers of plastics pollution to present and future humans, the UK Government must drive ambitious domestic and international policy to mitigate this growing threat to human well-being.

More urgent threat than climate change?

Earth systems’ scientists – a group who think about how humans interact with the planet we call home – have highlighted nine ‘planetary boundaries’ that, once crossed, risk permanently reducing the quality of life of young people and future generations. In the past two years, this group of scientists have quantified that the planetary boundary for human-made chemicals in the environment (primarily plastics) now poses an equally or more urgent threat than climate change.

A legally binding treaty to end plastics pollution?

Last week, eight years after the Paris Climate Agreement, negotiators from around the world met again in the City of Lights to start the process of drafting a treaty to end plastics pollution which they hope may be implemented as soon as 2025. Despite the significant steps made towards a first draft treaty in Paris, there remains procedural opposition from major plastics-producing nations and significant lobbying from industry groups to reduce the strength of the potential treaty. Between now and the 2023 meeting in Nairobi, those who want to limit the potentially catastrophic risk of plastics pollution to human well-being must make their voices heard. Therefore, on intergenerational fairness grounds, the Intergenerational Foundation is calling on the UK Government to:

  • Become a leading advocate at the international level for the adoption of a legally binding treaty aimed at the phasing-out of plastics in many manufacturing processes
  • Demonstrate that it is a world leader in plastics’ alternatives by improving regulations to phase out single-use plastics and turning its pledge to end plastics pollution in the UK by 2040 into legislation

Why are plastics an important intergenerational fairness issue?

We now know that “no known environment, from populated to pristine, is… untouched by plastics.” Human plastics production has been exploding since the 1950s with only 9% of the estimated 8,300 million metric tonnes (Mt) produced since then having been recycled. The remaining plastics have either been: incinerated (causing air and greenhouse gas pollution) (12%); dumped into landfills; or left to enter the Earth’s terrestrial and marine ecosystems (combined 79%). Plastic production is expected to double from its 2016 level by 2040 and reach 2,000 million Mt/year by 2050.

The world’s soils and waters – critical for the productivity and sustainability of ecosystems, environmental quality, biodiversity, sequestering greenhouse gasses, and human wellbeing – have been saturated with plastics and plastic particles. While many of the consequences of the proliferation of plastics pollution remain unknown, it is clear that once plastics enter the environment, they take anywhere from 60 to 500 years to decompose.

Plastic pollution risks future food security, human health and our ability to combat climate change

The plastics already in Earth’s ecosystems combined with future plastics will ultimately reduce food security, harm human health and exacerbate climate change, potentially for centuries.

The accumulation of plastic residue has been linked with a reduction in agricultural yields of 11-25% when around 200kg/hectare of plastics were present in the top 20cm of the soil. Over the long term, this could significantly impact food security in the UK and around the world.

Plastics enter the ecosystem and build in concentration as they move up the food chain. Recent studies have suggested that ingestion through our food is the most significant source of human exposure to plastics. Scientists have even found microplastics in human blood. Some scientists argue that micro- and nano-plastics can have serious negative health effects on the human body including: “physical stress and damage, apoptosis, necrosis, inflammation, oxidative stress and immune responses.” While the science is still developing it is clear that plastic pollution has the potential to cause serious negative effects on human well-being.

Don’t forget emissions

Plastics are also a significant source of emissions; 90% are made of fossil fuels and emit 2.5 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of plastic. Microplastics may affect plant growth and carbon storage in soils, ultimately disrupting the natural greenhouse gas fluxes; reducing the magnitude of these effects requires urgent additional resources as we aim to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.

To protect future generations the UK needs to lead in the reduction of plastics

Despite the lack of clear scientific conclusions on the extent of the impact of plastics pollution, we need to address the plastics pollution issues immediately and internationally. Much of the life-cycle use of plastics – from the plastics imported through consumer and industrial products to the disposal of waste – is transboundary and cannot be solved without international cooperation. Once plastics enter the oceans or the atmosphere, they are quickly transported around the globe meaning that no country can prevent the harms of plastics pollution on its own.

The UK has established itself as a potential leader on the issue by banning “single-use plastic plates, trays, bowls, cutlery, balloon sticks, and certain types of polystyrene cups and food containers” from October 2023 and pledging to end plastic pollution by 2040. However, more needs to be done.

Increased international advocacy

Given the action the UK has already taken to reduce plastic pollution, advocating for a strong treaty that is in line with its national ambitions would be an obvious next step. In doing so, the UK government could lead the charge on incorporating the lessons from past successful international environmental agreements, like the Montreal Protocol, into any final agreement on plastics pollution. Therefore, UK negotiators should push for the treaty to be structured through a series of restrictions on the most dangerous products and not (as is the case with emissions under the Paris Agreement) through voluntary reduction quotas in plastics waste. By pushing for a treaty to be enforced through a series of trade restrictions on countries that fail to comply with the new international regulations, rather than via consensus, the UK government could help overcome the procedural deadlock currently faced in the negotiations while boosting the demand for domestically produced plastics’ alternatives.

Improved domestic policy action

In order to demonstrate its credibility in international negotiations, the UK government needs to do more to reduce the number of plastics absorbed in its own local ecosystems. This means that all levels of government must work together to reduce the use of microplastics in waste-water treatment and to prevent the dumping of treated sewage into the country’s water systems. The UK government should also expand the ban on single-use plastics to include more products that generate significant amounts of waste such as: coffee lids; soft drinks’ bottles; and disposable vapes. Finally, the UK government should introduce legislation (similar to the 2008 Climate Change Act) that turns its pledge to eliminate plastics pollution by 2040 into law.

Join IF’s call on the UK government to implement ambitious, but well-thought-out international and domestic policy, to prevent our fields, forests, rivers and oceans today and tomorrow from being overrun by our plastic waste.

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Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash