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This year Earth Day (April 22) marks the start of the fourth round of negotiations for a Global Plastics Treaty. Without much public fanfare, delegates from 175 countries together with hundreds of observers representing industry, academia, health organizations and environmental groups will gather in Ottawa to chart the course for the future of plastics and plastic pollution.

The stakes could not be higher.

Plastics have been linked to serious health problems, including cancer, lung disease and birth defects. Recently researchers found that individuals with heart disease who had microplastics, those tiny particles that pervade our environment, in their tissue had twice the risk of suffering a heart attack, stroke or death within three years. Babies, because of their increased exposure to plastics and vulnerability, are especially at risk.

Humans are not the only ones at risk — more than 1 million marine creatures are estimated to be killed by plastics in garbage each year. Eleven million metric tons of plastic waste are flowing into the ocean each year. The World Health Organization report, Tobacco: Poisoning our Planet, describes the significant risks presented from the 4.5 trillion discarded cigarette butts. Cigarette filters based on cellulose-acetate don’t degrade and continue harming the environment as microplastics circulate in our marine and freshwater systems. They also release nicotine, heavy metals and other chemicals that threaten not only coastal fishing communities but also those who consume seafood products.

Moreover, plastics are irrefutably fueling the climate change crisis.

More than 90% of plastics are produced from fossil fuels and 4% of total greenhouse gas emissions are generated in connection with the production, conversion and waste management of plastics. And plastics-related emissions are projected to more than double by 2060. With low income and communities of color disproportionately located near petrochemical plants, as well plastic production and waste incineration facilities, they are especially at risk for the harmful environmental and health impacts.

The scale of the problem is only expected to grow. Experts predict that global production of thermoplastics will increase to 445.25 million metric tons in 2025 and continue to increase by more than 30% by 2050. And notwithstanding increasing government bans and regulation of single-use plastic, between 2019 and 2021 there was an increase annually of 6 million tonnes (6.6 million U.S. tons) per year in single use plastic production.

Contrary to decades of industry promotion, recycling is not the answer to the plastics challenge. According to a comprehensive analysis and report by Greenpeace, even though the industry has been pushing recycling since the 1990s, “the vast majority of U.S. plastic waste is still not recyclable.” The report further observed a decline in the rate of recycling in the U.S. from a high of 9.5% in 2014 to 5-6 % in 2021. Even new recycling technologies, such as chemical recycling, can produce toxic emissions and hazardous waste.

“So now they are putting plastic wrappers on the paper straws… help me help it make sense”

The Global Plastics Treaty negotiations offer a chance to chart a sustainable course for our planet. We are at the crossroads of moving forward a treaty that will call for significant reductions not only in single-use plastics but also reduce the overall amount of plastics produced and demand full transparency in the industry.

So far, the prospects for a strong treaty are uncertain at best. While the member countries of the High Ambition Coalition are pushing for the restriction and elimination of problematic plastics as well as reporting and transparency provisions to ensure accountability through the value chain (the HAC Ministerial Statement), the so-called “Like Minded Group” representing many fossil fuel countries are advocating for a focus on waste management rather than production limits. And despite a letter from six senators and more than a dozen House members calling on Secretary of State Antony Blinken to negotiate “the strongest agreement possible” including binding plastic production limits, the details of the potentially influential U.S. position remain undeclared — ironically when the administration is touting its leadership in addressing climate change and promoting environmental justice.

To turn the political tide in Ottawa, we need to take a lesson from the first Earth Day when grassroots activism in the form of 20 million people from all walks of life taking to the streets sparked the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the first generation of environmental laws. With myriad media and communication technologies and platforms available today to share your voice (#PlanetvsPlastics #EndPlastics #EarthDay #GlobalPlasticsTreaty), it’s time to demand that our elected leaders forge a treaty that will free us and our planet from the scourge of plastic and plastic pollution.

Susan Bass is senior vice president of programs and operations at

Susan Bass