Moving from symptom management to upstream plastics prevention: The fallacy of plastic cleanup technology


Plastic removal technologies can temporarily mitigate plastic accumulation at local scales, but evidence-based criteria are needed in policies to ensure that they are feasible and that ecological benefits outweigh the costs. To reduce plastic pollution efficiently and economically, policy should prioritize regulating and reducing upstream production rather than downstream pollution cleanup.

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Addressing the plastics crisis

Plastic pollution accumulates in all environments, from the highest mountains to the deepest oceans.
Production is projected to triple by 2060, with plastic pollution increasing correspondingly under business-as-usual scenarios.
Plastics and other chemical pollutants are already outside the safe operating space for humanity, threatening critical Earth system processes related to climate and biodiversity, causing adverse impacts on human health, organisms, ecosystems, and biogeochemical cycles.

In response, the UN Environment Assembly adopted a resolution (UNEP/EA.5/Res.14) to develop a Plastics Treaty by 2024. As the treaty negotiations progress, stakeholders debate how to prioritize different solutions including the prevention, reduction, management, and removal of plastics. From a scientific perspective, measures to reduce the production and consumption of virgin plastics are key to minimizing global pollution efficiently and economically, yet scenario studies show that even if all available measures are implemented, the growth in plastics production will be too high to prevent further pollution entirely.
Plastic removal technologies (PRTs), often framed as “cleanups,” have been developed to mitigate pollution.
However, PRTs are associated with various concerns related to their technological challenges, environmental impacts, equity and justice, verifiability, market-based “greenwashing,” and distraction from more effective solutions.
Verifiability relates to performance being scientifically proven. Questions of equity and justice relate to how they might allow the costs of polluting industries to be externalized onto communities with far less resources, agency, and responsibility for the design of hazardous and wasteful products and production levels. There are many lobbyists and advocates for the introduction of a new market for the sale of plastic offsets or plastic credits in relation to PRTs within the Plastics Treaty, analogous to the carbon credits’ market in the context of climate change mitigation and with similar concerns. Advocates from plastic-producing states, brokers seeking to sell PRTs, and PRT manufacturers have become increasingly vocal in arguing that PRTs should be enshrined in global policy. While PRTs could be necessary in some local cases, such as heavily polluted harbors, beaches, and rivers, in a global context, PRTs should not be enshrined in a treaty for purposes such as plastics offsetting. There is no evidence that the net benefits of PRTs outweigh their environmental and economic impacts outside highly polluted areas.


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