Potential options for elements towards an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution

Potential options for elements towards an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution

Chemicals in Products

Plastic pollution causes physical damage to ecosystems and wildlife and results in chemical contamination of living organisms, people, and the environment.

While stopping plastic pollution at its source by producing and using less plastic is the key approach to reducing the amounts of plastics and associated wastes, chemical contamination caused by toxic additives, polymers, and processing aid chemicals will continue to remain a significant health threat.

To address this threat, it is essential to know what hazardous chemicals and problematic polymers we are talking about and where they are present in the plastics value chain to take a step forward to restrictions and bans.

A global precedent to establish disclosure is in paragraph 22 of the Dubai Declaration on Chemicals Management which states: “information about chemicals related to health and safety of humans and the environment should not be regarded as confidential.” Requiring the availability of such information, its transparency and accessibility throughout the entire lifecycle of plastic materials and products and within and outside the supply chains is a necessary precondition for meeting the objectives of the treaty.

In existing environmental conventions, transparency of information about chemicals in materials and products is limited to individual cases. For example, the 2013 decision on mandatory labelling of thermal insulation products for new buildings containing HBCD has been the only example of transparency in the Stockholm Convention.  This means there is little incentive and no global requirement to map the presence of banned or restricted chemicals in manufactured materials and wastes, including plastics. While new toxic plastic additives are regularly recognized as persistent organic pollutants and listed under the Stockholm Convention, they still appear in new products and potentially spread uncontrollably with material cycles due to multiple exemptions and no transparency requirements.

While the Basel Convention requires a full characterization of wastes that may be subject to transboundary movement, there are no globally harmonized transparency requirements for information about chemicals in products that eventually become waste. Therefore, nobody can know what harmful chemicals are present in a shipment of plastic waste. Consequently, implementing the Basel Convention is compromised.

Additionally, since products at the end of life feed the circular economy with secondary raw materials, the lack of chemical transparency seriously threatens human health and the environment because toxic chemicals, including those already banned by the chemical conventions, are found in recyclates and products made of them, including plastic. Lack of formal transparency under the existing chemicals and waste Conventions, deprives recyclers of knowing whether the waste they work with is contaminated. As a result, they cannot predict accurately how the materials will behave in the recycling processes due to interactions and interferences of the chemicals in it, and can make no informed decisions about what purposes recyclates can be safely used for with respect to mechanical strength and toxicity considerations unless costly analyses are performed post-recycling

It is obvious that a lack of globally harmonized obligations to ensure the availability and accessibility of information about chemicals of concern in materials and products throughout their life cycle results in persistent contamination of the value chains.

The new plastic treaty has a potential to become the first global agreement that includes harmonized legally binding transparency requirements for information on chemicals and polymers used in plastics. With this, the treaty will contain the critical prerequisite for meeting all its objectives, address the fundamental human right to information, and pave the way for including transparency requirements for chemicals under other MEAs on chemicals and waste.

A public database for chemicals and polymers used in plastics, disclosed based on hazard criteria and globally harmonized binding requirements for information transparency, should be a fundamental part of treaty implementation. Reporting to the database should become an obligation of plastic manufacturers and be enforced by the Parties.  Such a database will become the basis for further decisions on plastic design considerations, production, restrictions and minimization.

Read more about transparency of chemicals in plastic materials and products and how it should be implemented in the new global plastic treaty here:

A detailed description of potential options for elements towards an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution is presented in the attached document.

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Written by Olga Speranskaya