14 Mar 2024
14:00–15:30

Lieu: Online | Webex

Organisation: PlastChem, Geneva Environment Network

Launching the flagship report from the PlastChem Project, this event organized within the framework of the Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues, provided a platform for stakeholders to discuss the latest state of science on plastic chemicals and polymers of concern and identify way to address them.

About this Session

Chemicals are a central aspect of the plastics issue. Although there is a wealth of science-based information to inform policy makers, implementing scientific data is challenging because information is scattered and not easily accessible. The PlastChem project addresses the fragmented understanding of plastic chemicals, their hazard properties, and their presence in polymers. This initiative has created a high-quality, comprehensive state-of-the-science report synthesizing publicly available evidence to inform future-proof policy development that protects public health and the environment.

This event, organized in the framework of the Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues launched the flagship report from the PlastChem Project and will provide a platform for stakeholders to discuss the latest state of science on plastic chemicals and polymers of concern and identify ways to address them.

Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues

The world is facing a plastic crisis, the status quo is not an option. Plastic pollution is a serious issue of global concern which requires an urgent and international response involving all relevant actors at different levels. Many initiatives, projects and governance responses and options have been developed to tackle this major environmental problem, but we are still unable to cope with the amount of plastic we generate. In addition, there is a lack of coordination which can better lead to a more effective and efficient response.

Various actors in Geneva are engaged in rethinking the way we manufacture, use, trade and manage plastics. The Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues aim at outreaching and creating synergies among these actors, highlighting efforts made by intergovernmental organizations, governments, businesses, the scientific community, civil society and individuals in the hope of informing and creating synergies and coordinated actions. The dialogues highlight what the different stakeholders in Geneva and beyond have achieved at all levels, present the latest research and governance options.

Following the landmark resolution adopted at UNEA-5 to end plastic pollution and building on the outcomes of the first two series, the third series of dialogues will encourage increased engagement of the Geneva community with future negotiations on the matter.

Speakers

Michel TSCHIRREN

Head, Global Affairs, Federal Office for the Environment, Switzerland

Jonas ENGE

Research Council of Norway

Laura MONCLÚS

Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Martin WAGNER

Associate Professor, Onsager fellow, Department of Biology, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Jane MUNCKE

Managing Director and Chief Scientific Officer, Food Packaging Forum

Karen RAUBENHEIMER

Lecturer at Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS), University of Wollongong

Markos IERIDIS

Chemicals Specialist, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

Lesley ONYON

Head, Chemical Safety and Health Unit, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, World Health Organization (WHO)

Eeva LEINALA

Principal Administrator, Risk Reduction, GLP & Mutual Acceptance Data, Chemical Accidents Programmes, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)

Hans Peter ARP

Norwegian Geotechnical Institute

Jodie ROUSSELL

Global Public Affairs Lead, Packaging & Sustainability, Nestlé | Member of the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty

Zhanyun WANG

Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa)

Ana Paula SOUZA

Human Rights Officer, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

David AZOULAY

Director of the Geneva Office and of the Environmental Health Program, Center for International Environmental Law | Moderator

Summary

Opening Remarks

Michel TSCHIRREN | Head, Global Affairs, Federal Office for the Environment, Switzerland

  • Plastic pollution is a multifaceted challenge that requires a comprehensive response addressing the full life cycle of plastics.
  • Chemicals in plastics are a key aspect of the plastics crisis. Although a range of scientifically sound information is available, translating scientific data into concrete action remains a challenge as information is often fragmented and hard to access.
  • Existing information must be utilized as effectively as possible and good examples of how this is done can be found in the intergovernmental science-policy processes are the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and the IPBES (Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) in the areas of climate change and biodiversity.
  • Currently, a third intergovernmental panel is being established and will cover the area of chemical waste and pollution. This new science-policy panel could play a key role in synthesizing information about chemicals and plastics and informing evidence-based policy development and in supporting international organizations and conventions active in this area, many of which are in Geneva.
  • It is important that legally binding instruments to end plastic pollution addresses chemicals of concern and plastic products in a comprehensive and transparent manner, disclosing information on the chemical composition of plastics,  necessary to close current data gaps and allow for a circular economy.
  • The PlastChem project, through its report, puts forward an analysis that will help prioritize and address chemicals of concern. This is a critical step towards a circular economy and the protection of human health and the environment.
  • Switzerland is a proud contributor through the participation of the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Material Science and Technology (EMPA) to the report.

Jonas ENGE | Research Council of Norway

  • The Research Council of Norway is a government agency that funds research and innovation projects on behalf of the government.
  • With its annual investments of over a billion euros, it promotes both basic and applied research and innovation.
  • The PlastChem Project was selected out of many who responded to a call by the Norwegian environment agency, which was looking for projects on the state science review on hazardous substances in plastics.
  • The project fulfilled the requirement of providing new insights on substances of concern in plastics, including regulatory needs, and of producing a new knowledge base for policy development and decision-making at the national, regional and global levels.
  • The project stood out among the group of proposals for its clear description and was awarded with the highest possible grade for scientific excellence.
  • The PlastChem project now at its completion does provide scientific evidence to policy makers to deal with the chemical dimension of plastics.

Presentation of the Report

Laura MONCLÚS |  Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Martin WAGNER | Associate Professor, Onsager fellow, Department of Biology, Norwegian University of Science and Technology and Jane MUNCKE | Managing Director and Chief Scientific Officer, Food Packaging Forum

  • The goal of the PlastChem Project was to synthesize existing scientific knowledge to enable policymakers and other decision-makers to identify chemicals and polymers of concern.

What are plastic chemicals?

  • To better understand what plastics are, it can be imagined as a spaghetti dish. Spaghetti is the polymers, the major ingredient of all plastics, very long molecules of repeating units (monomers). To make spaghetti taste and look better, other ingredients are necessary. These other ingredients are plastic chemicals.

  • Plastic chemicals, usually believed to be only plastic additives, are used throughout the life cycle of plastics starting from feedstock extraction to end of the life stage.
  • Across the plastics lifecycle, chemicals are added as starting substances, monomers catalysts to make the precursors; additives to make them functional. Throughout the life cycle of plastics, non-intentionally added substances are being generated or introduced in plastic materials and products.

Why it is important to address plastic chemicals?

  • Plastic chemicals are emitted or released into the environment throughout the whole life cycle of plastics. This results in exposure to wildlife and biota and in substantial health impacts.
  • Recent research shows that human exposure to plastic chemicals amounts to health costs of 249 billion US dollars per year or 1.2% of the US GDP.
  • The momentum generated at the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly with the adoption of a resolution to End Plastic Pollution shows strong political will to deal with the plastics problem, including the chemical dimension of plastics.
  • Plastic chemicals of concern play a major role block in the transition to a circular economy as they are huge in numbers and are still not all regulated by global governance. The Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions (BRS) estimated that less than one percent of these chemicals is regulated globally.

Key Findings

  • PlastChem found more plastic chemicals than previously known: more than sixteen thousand plastic chemicals are used or unintentionally present in plastic.
  • The number is higher compared to the previous report by UNEP because more sources were used: seven databases and information gather was updated to the spring of 2023.
  • PlastChem harmonized previously fragmented information about plastic chemicals in a single comprehensive database.
  • The diversity of plastic chemicals is immense and serve multiple functions. Besides additives, there are processing aids, catalysts, and non-intentionally added substances, which include degradation products and impurities.

  • Out of these 16,000 plastic chemicals used in plastic, additional robust information is available for more than 6,000, which are either marketed for use or present in plastic being detected in scientific studies.The lack of information for the remaining 9,000 evidences a lack of transparency in plastic chemicals.
  • Using the United Nations globally harmonized system of classification and leveling and the updated CLP regulations, four hazard criteria were applied to identify chemicals of concern in the 16,000: persistence, bioaccumulation, mobility, and toxicity, leading to the identification of at least 4200 chemicals of concern.
  • Those that are not to be hazardous cannot be considered safe chemicals, since they have not been assessed for the four hazard criteria.
  • Almost all plastic chemicals are toxic for either the aquatic environment or human health. An hazard criterion for toxicity for the terrestrial environment is currently lacking and may be important to add in the future.

  • Of the over 4,000 chemicals of concern, additional evidence has found over 1,800 of chemicals of concern are used or detected in plastic. Most of them are marketed for use and 1,000 are present in plastic being detected in scientific studies and the majority of these chemicals are used or have been detected in every measured plastic type for which data is available including polypropylene, polystyrene, or polyaniline.
  • Around 980 chemicals are currently regulated under existing multilateral environmental agreements. Many of these are only regulated in parts of their lifecycle, making the governance gap persistent.

How to deal with so many plastic chemicals?

  • The approaches suggested in the project are a hazard-based approach and a group-based approach, which are not new and used in existing multilateral environment agreements, e.g. the Stockholm Convention’s employment of the group-based approach.
  • Hazard-based approach | Chemicals of concern are identified based on their intrinsic problematic properties. In this case, the criteria used were persistence; bioaccumulation; mobility; and toxicity (PBMT). This approach is backed by abundant scientific evidence and compared to the risk-based approach it is more fitting to address big amounts of plastic chemicals and requires less resources and time, unlocking potential delays in political decisions. Through this approach, a list of chemicals of concern and other plastic chemicals was created for the use of policymakers. Steps undertaken in the list-based approach:
    • Identification of chemicals that are already regulated under existing MEAs, which amount to 980 chemicals (of which some are only regulated during phases of the life cycle);
    • Isolation of the 10,000 chemicals without associated hazard data and categorization in a grey list. The report recommends strategies on how to prioritize these chemicals for testing and assessment.
    • Analysis of chemicals with hazard information available and categorization into four lists based on the urgency of regulating them. It is worth noticing that chemicals on the white lists are non-hazardous for a lack of information but cannot be declared safe.

  • Group-based approach | Aims to address groups of chemicals of concern instead of individual chemicals based on the scientific evidence that similar chemical structure often comes with similar hazard properties, avoiding issues such as regrettable substitutions. Another positive feature compared to a chemical-by-chemical approach is fast-track regulation of chemicals.
    It revealed that among plastic chemicals, there are fifteen priority groups of chemicals of concern, based on  how many individual chemicals of concern these groups contained. While some groups are well-known for their hazardous properties, others have not been previously identified.

What can policymakers do with that scientific evidence?

  • To deal with plastic chemicals the three guiding principles to adopt are the precautionary principle, the full life cycle approach, and the principle of independent evidence. Recommendations for policymakers to make evidence-based decisions include:
  1. Regulate plastic chemicals comprehensively and efficiently, implementing both a hazard-based and a group-based approach. This will require setting criteria to identify chemicals of concern, like the one presented in the report, which can be used immediately. Prioritized lists of chemicals of concern and the groups regulate.
  2. Addressing the many unknown plastic chemicals can be done through transparency requirements on plastic chemicals. Suggested actions include the establishment of common information requirements with h a common platform for sharing information; requirements for disclosure and clear labeling of plastic chemicals of concern across entire value chains, and promoting the gathering and disclosing of information on the complex mixtures.
  3. Chemical complexity should be solved with simplification, which could be achieved by developing stringent safety and sustainability criteria for plastic chemicals and materials, based on robust science to develop clear guidelines and goals for achieving chemical simplicity in plastics. For example, design criteria and promote research and development for innovation in simpler and equally functional plastic materials.
  4. Building capacity to create safer and more sustainable plastics in all countries. This can be achieved by establishing open knowledge-sharing platforms; an open forum for stakeholder dialogue, involving stakeholders from industry, academia, civil society, and governments and leveraging international cooperation.

Key Findings

Panel Discussion

Karen RAUBENHEIMER | Lecturer at Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS), University of Wollongong

  • Chemicals and polymers are part of the revised zero draft of the international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution , and the report lays out the issues and the mechanisms for better management of plastic chemicals, providing key support to negotiators in this aspect.
  • The report responds to the zero-draft calls for transparency and disclosure by showing these are lacking and are central to understanding and managing plastic-related issues, especially in the case of invisible pollution.
  • The zero-draft lists of chemicals and polymers that will require different regulations such as elimination or restriction on production, use, and trade.
  • The report provides a starting point for creating those lists, offering negotiators an example of how regulations under negotiation would apply to those lists.
  • Creating those lists allows for accelerated management of plastic chemicals. Other MEAs have shown that a chemical by chemical is too slow. Therefore, the report provides a mechanism to bring more chemicals under global regulation more quickly.
  • The report provides strong support for design criteria to help us move from a reactive approach – trying to understand and manage plastic chemicals after they entered our markets –  towards a proactive approach, where we seek to eliminate hazards before plastics are placed on the market.

Markos IERIDIS | Chemicals Specialist, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

  • Transparency is a key enabler of effective regulation as we cannot regulate pollution we cannot see.
  • The report is also aligned with UNEP initiatives that advocate for transparency along the value chain of plastic products such as:
  • Transparency along the value chain would facilitate safer plastic products, not only along the value chain and the lifetime of a single product but the material for it to be transformed into a secondary material. It would indirectly facilitate the circular economy of plastics, aligned with the Basel and Stockholm Conventions principles for preventing recycling of plastics above a certain limit to avoid perpetuating the presence of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) in products.
  • Transparency is also a long-standing principles as stipulated in the Dubai Declaration on International Chemicals Management of 2006, stating that information on chemicals related to the health and safety of humans and the environment should not be regarded as confidential.
  • The report also aligns with the newly adopted Global Framework on Chemicals, which puts the need to accessrelevant information on chemicals as a key principle as it represents useful information to protect the human health and the environment.
  • Both this report and BRS/UNEP’s Chemicals in Plastics report speak to the importance of grouping approaches to address the multitude of chemicals used in plastic production.

Lesley ONYON | Head, Chemical Safety and Health Unit, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, World Health Organization (WHO)

  • WHO key roles are:
    • Increase the engagement of the health community in the treaty negotiations;
    • Advocate for health aspects of plastics to be covered in the treaty and for it to promote the attainment of the highest standards of health and environment amongst its core objectives.
    • Scale up WHO work on the health aspects of chemicals and plastics to enforce the mandate given by the World Health Assembly Resolution on the impact of chemicals, waste and pollutionon human health.

Health Aspects of Plastics and of the Plastics Treaty:

  • The biggest challenge for the health sector is the use of plastics in health care. While we need to ensure access to safe and effective healthcare products which are of good quality, affordable, accessible and appropriate, the health care sector must be transformed to reduce plastic waste and pollution.
  • Recognizing that plastics are made from products of the petrochemical industry, the treaty should be very flexible, future-proofed and  foster innovation in healthcare, aligning its objectives with those of the Alliance for Transformative Action on Climate and Health (ATACH) to foster sustainable and climate resilient health care facilities.
  • Microplastics and nanoplastics leaching problematic chemicals are a key issue in the treaty negotiations. Whilst evidence is lacking for a full human health risk assessment, evidence is growing rapidly. Reducing exposure to microplastics and nano plastics is a precautionary measure that should be promoted in the treaty.

WHO is engaged in two reviews:

  • The derivation of health-based guidance values for PFAs and related substances. Works include a systematic landscape review to identify the key health effects and environmental occurrence in food and water and the development of review protocols and methodologies to derive the health-based guidance values.
  • WHO is collaborating with UNEP on an update of the state of the science on endocrine disruptors. This will provide an update for policy makers on the 2012 report.  Currently a scope scoping review of the published scientific literature has already found a three-fold increase in studies published over the last 10 years. We are coordinating our efforts with those of the OECD and the GHS subcommittee (UNECE) to identify on those end points where the strength of evidence has grown further as well as endpoints that have not included in the 2012 report.
  • Both of these initiatives are due for completion at the end of 2025 and WHO hopes that they will be able to serve a role in the treaty implementation.

Eeva LEINALA | Principal Administrator, Risk Reduction, GLP & Mutual Acceptance Data, Chemical Accidents Programmes, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)

  • In 2021, the OECD released the report A Chemicals Perspective on Designing with Sustainable Plastics to embed sustainable chemistry thinking at the design stage of plastics to drive more conscious considerations of the impacts of selected chemicals.
  • The report articulated sustainable design goals such as selecting materials that have an inherently lower risk or hazard, a commercial afterlife,  that generate no waste and that use secondary feedstock or biobased feedstocks.
  •  Resolving trade-offs in product design is not always easy but a systems approach will lead to better decision-making.
  • The report launched today informs on the hazard and the transparency aspects of the sustainable design of plastics but also includes several similar messages about designs and chemical groups that were identified, including substances that are regulated at a national or international levels.
  • Challenges related to the international flow of plastics include ensuring both consistent global risk management and creating a level playing field for progressive industries to compete in a global market.
  • Industries with less technical capacity need concrete information, like that provided by this project to help them make better chemical selection choices.
  • To support international harmonization of chemicals management, collaboration is required to ensure that all countries have in place national chemical management systems,  legislations and frameworks.
  • International action for managing chemicals and plastics is necessary since plastics are complex and serve many different uses. All these require different types of formulations and various risk management approaches for chemical management.
  • Incentives for industries to prioritize more sustainable design of plastics must be put in place. These should enable thinking about the impacts of the chemicals they employ to deliver the desired functionalities.

Hans Peter ARP | Norwegian Geotechnical Institute

  • One of the main dilemmas scientists are faced with in this topic is the incompatibility between hazardous substances and a circular economy, with large numbers of chemicals of concern that can be spread through the circular economy.
  • The only way forward is to incentivize simplification and innovation towards a safer and more sustainable plastics industry that is more compatible with the circular economy.
  • We must simplify the lifecycle where plastics are essential, by recycling them locally with more high-quality materials that can withstand being reused, and transition to fewer substances with risks that are easy to understand. There are 3,674 colorants in plastic and many of them are hazardous without serving any purpose but being colored,  hence reducing those pigments is essential.

This is the type of thinking that has to go forward: simplify the life cycle, simplify the materials, and simplify the chemicals.

  • It is important to tap into market incentives and innovate to have more local value cycles within the context of a clear international framework that sets goals for the simplification of the material’s lifecycles and of chemicals.

Jodie ROUSSELL | Global Public Affairs Lead, Packaging & Sustainability, Nestlé | Member of the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty

  • Leading up to the INC4, the business coalition published five policy briefings, one of which on restrictions and phase-outs covering chemicals and polymers of concern and problematic and avoidable plastic products.
  • The Business Coalition wish for the Plastics Treaty is for it to provide alignment on binding harmonized criteria, with annexes expanding on the development of specific lists of chemicals groups of polymers and chemicals that should be phased out; the inclusion of harmonized information, disclosure marking, and labeling requirements.
  • It is important to link chemicals to specific applications and products in specific industries and focus work on an industry-by-industry basis as applications are complex depending on the industry.
  • High-level progress is made voluntarily by groups of companies, increasing the importance of achieving a global level playing field to create an environment that incentivizes improvement and supports those who are already making efforts to improve their portfolios.
  • It is unrealistic in the scope of the treaty to complete all of this work by the end of November. As long as the treaty framework provides space for a management process, work could be managed between a diplomatic conference and the first COP in terms of getting into details. It is important to consider how to tap the experience and expertise to get the right mix of solutions for each time frame and the opportunities these timeframes present.
  • A start and strengthen approach is pragmatic and actionable, but there is a need to wait for the treaty to be agreed upon to establish and apply well-agreed-upon industries lists.
  • Business expectations include avoiding:
    • vastly diverging elimination criteria and lists developed by governments;
    • unnecessary loopholes for the trade of items that are banned in one country but not another;and
    • increased administrative burdens of purely national rules and intensive border control measures.
  • Coordinated efforts on elimination will help reduce compliance risks for business, decrease contamination in recycling processes and increase the safety and quality of all plastic products and the recycled feedstock for all industries.

Zhanyun WANG | Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa)

  • A hazard-based, group-based approach to chemicals management has been successfully applied at the national, regional and global levels. Most importantly, this approach has enabled us to address a large number of highly problematic chemicals in an efficient manner. So we have the necessary tools and experience in further applying this approach to plastic chemicals.
  • Using a hazard-based, group-based approach is not only for efficiency, but a necessity for protecting human health and the environment as well as for solving the plastic pollution issue. This is because when we take our time to identify chemicals of concern, people are being exposed to the chemicals, vulnearable and at-risk populations are being exposed, and our reuse and recycling systems are being impeded. This does not mean we don’t need any other information when addressing plastic chemicals. In fact, once we identify and decide to act on chemicals of concern based on a hazard-based, group-based approach, exposure information is key for developing and taking effective action to remove chemicals of concern from the products that we and our technological systems are being exposed to. 
  • There is a critical need for transparency and to use the information that we collect fit for purpose.
  • A hazard-based, group-based approach can not only help us to address the legacy and emerging plastic chemicals, but can also guide us towards safer and more sustainable plastic chemicals. Such an approach can inform the chemical and product designers to early on move away from certain bad chemicals, and thus can stimulate true innovation of safer and more sustainable plastics with the finite financial and human resources. In turn, it can also help to build up consumers’ confidence on the brands and product safety in general.

Ana Paula SOUZA | Human Rights Officer, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

  • OHCHR and the SR on toxics and human rights have also been calling for a move from a chemicals-specific approach to addressing groups of chemicals of concern. This could help ensure that restriction of one harmful chemical does not simply lead to substitution of another harmful chemical, and in doing so, better safeguard the rights that are compromised by toxic exposure.
  • This should also be accompanied by a cap on primary plastic production and measures to eliminate and restrict unnecessary, avoidable, or problematic plastics, as well as the plastic polymers that are of particular concern due to their adverse effects on the environment and human health.
  • The lack of transparency, which has been highlighted in the study, and that is closely linked to accountability, is another priority that we have been highlighting at INC. Access to information must ensure full transparency related to health and safety information, and not be subject or conditional to industry interests.
  •  As we know, in negotiations, where every comma is fiercely scrutinized, what is excluded from the text matters as much as what has been included. And human rights matter.
  • As this study points out, chemicals of concern are present in all plastics types. If plastics were a sample in a laboratory, or a piece in a museum, with little to no interaction with people and the environment, it would not be a human rights issue. And most likely there wouldn’t be a need for a treaty to end plastic pollution. But we know this is not the case. Plastics are accumulating in food chains, contaminating water, soil, and air, and releasing hazardous substances into the environment, with disproportionate impacts in several populations.

Recommendations:

  1. A plastic treaty with explicit reference to human rights is a matter of obligation, as all States already have obligations to respect, protect and fulfill human rights. This extends to protecting people from foreseeable and preventable human rights harms caused by all forms of environmental degradation, including plastic pollution.  The Treaty must also safeguard the rights of those most affected by plastic production and pollution. This needs to be spelled out. While there is much attention about how the business sector is an integral part of the solutions to address plastic pollution – and no one will disagree with that – their responsibility for creating massive volumes of plastic pollution and waste, is often not part of the discussion.
  2. The new instrument, in line with the UN GP on BHR, must include an obligation requiring States to enact mandatory human rights due diligence laws and transparency which would require business enterprises to disclose the full chemical composition of their plastic materials and products, including additives and traceability across the value-chain of plastic products, plastic trade flows, supply chains and trade policies. Policy making must be informed by the best available science, and a diverse range of voices must be involved in informing environmental policy. For this to happen, some conditions need to be in place: there should be an enabling environment for the conduct of scientific inquiry, free from undue interference, conflict of interest and misleading claims related to plastic pollution.
    Governments should fund research and ensure equitable access to sustainable technologies, through international cooperation.
  3. The new treaty myst protect the right to science, including Indigenous Peoples’ rights to their knowledge, practices and innovations.

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