CIEL accuses governments of facilitating greenwashing and calls for “rights over profit”
29 Mar 2023 --- The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) calls for a common and inclusive definition of circularity, focusing on protecting natural resources and eliminating externalized costs of production. The organization says governments’ shielding the plastic industry from taking accountability for environmental and human health risks is a “function of greenwashing.”
In its briefing, CIEL criticizes that the term “circular economy” has moved away from its original definition, undermining the validity of the concept in national and global policy discussions by predominantly focusing on waste management and disposal.
“We hope that negotiators of the new plastics treaty are listening to the myriad civil society voices cited in this briefing, making a strong case for the protection of human rights through dramatic reductions in the amounts of plastics produced and the toxic chemicals used to make them,” Jane Patton, campaign manager, Plastics & Petrochemicals tells PackagingInsights.
“The plastics industry that got us into this crisis in the first place has had far too much influence over the way governments consider circularity, and we expect that when it comes to the plastics crisis, governments will choose to better represent the needs of their peoples by prioritizing human rights over profit in implementing policies intended to be ‘circular.’”
Circularity older than materials
The briefing outlines key principles on which a circular economy framework must be built. The principles include considerations along the entire plastics life cycle, from resource extraction, production, manufacture, transport and consumption.
CIEL explains that the concept of circularity is not new. Instead, plastics and the conceptions of single-use are new to the economy and the human experience.
The harms from plastics “run contrary” to widely understood principles of circularity. The organization finds these include notions of resource use reduction, eliminating externalities and the need to maintain the economy within planetary boundaries that can support thriving human communities.
Call for shifting policy focus
Furthermore, the report asserts that when considering if and how the concept of circularity can apply to the current design, production, use and elimination of plastics, it is essential to stay grounded in the core principles of a circular economy.
The critical question in policy decisions is not “how can we build a circular economy for plastics?” but rather “how can we redesign our economy to reduce the total volume of materials and products in it, and thus to be more circular?”
Implementing circularity for any plastics in ways true to the original idea of a circular economy would require policies that prioritize minimizing plastics use and eliminating hazards along the supply chain. As this analysis demonstrates, a policy approach that merely emphasizes recycling or burning plastics and allows for their continued mass production is not and cannot be circular.
The circular rebrand
Patton says that around 2018, “we suddenly saw a rush of publications, policy recommendations and advertisements from plastics industry trade groups in the US and Europe, rebranding ‘circular economy’ to mean merely recycling, including the inefficient and polluting thermal processing technologies, branded as ‘advanced recycling.’”
She continues by saying that this industry-led rebranding has been used to justify more plastics production and not less, undermining anything “circular” about it. “The problems with plastics are much bigger than just visible trash loose in the environment, and recycling does not adequately address that.”
“Equating mere recycling to circularity, as the industry has done, leaves all the other problems with plastics on the table, including myriad violations of human rights. That’s why we have to refocus the conversation on circularity to be about safe redesign, reduced production of wasteful plastics and the elimination of toxic chemicals from plastics,” asserts Patton.
Mechanical and advanced recycling technologies do not effectively replace new plastic feedstocks and have staggeringly low yields, says CIEL. As the world grapples with the recognition that system changes are underpinning such an approach, numerous competing interpretations of circular economy have been promoted by governments, the plastics industry and others, some of which merely relabel waste management practices as “circular.”
“Such formulations are a function of greenwashing meant to shield the plastics industry from justifiable accountability for the risk their chemical products pose to the environment and the future of our economy,” claims the briefing.
If policymakers seek to embed principles of circularity into global governance to end plastic pollution and the global plastics crisis, they must do so by returning to the initial intent of circularity and abandoning concepts often erroneously pushed as part of a circular economy.
The pillars of a new global agreement on plastics, for instance, must be predicated on restrictions on plastics production and the elimination of toxic chemicals in the plastics supply chain (including whole classes of problematic additives, like bisphenols).
Global input needed
An agreement should encompass standards for the fundamental redesign of delivery and manufacturing systems to reduce the demand for plastics, especially (but not limited to) packaging.
Patton says: “We have many rich traditions and practices to lean on when defining circularity! The resolution that kicked off the ongoing plastics treaty negotiations even names Indigenous knowledge as key to solving the world’s plastics crisis, and they’re absolutely right.”
“Circularity should be about reducing resource use, eliminating harm to protect human rights, and producing only what’s needed rather than what can be profited from. Circularity should be about designing for reuse and producing only within the planetary boundaries – something that rampant over-production of toxic plastics for single-use and scant recycling just simply does not achieve,” concludes Patton.
By Natalie Schwertheim
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