This story was originally published by ProPublica.
Today, it is widely acknowledged that everything about plastic — from extracting fossil fuels to make it, to manufacturing products that use it, to disposing of it — can seriously harm public health and the environment. Plastics are a growing driver of climate change. As growth in renewable energy threatens the rule of fossil fuels, that industry is clinging to the creation of new plastics as its Plan B.
Now, the plastics industry faces a new threat. World officials will gather at a United Nations meeting in November to start negotiating the text of the first legally binding treaty on plastics. A final version is expected next year. If the agreement limits plastic production or use, the implications for the businesses that rely on it could be enormous.
So it wasn’t a surprise when those businesses sought to influence the discussion. But what has been jarring to environmental advocates and scientific researchers is who has been there to boost the Big Plastic platform: the United Nations itself, along with other globally respected groups.
This dynamic is evident right now in New York City, as global leaders, business executives and climate activists convene for Climate Week, an annual gathering organized by the nonprofit Climate Group in partnership with the United Nations.
Event organizers granted an opening ceremony speaking slot to a senior partner at McKinsey & Company, the powerhouse consulting firm that has advised fossil fuel companies
. Top event sponsors include major brands that rely on plastic packaging and associate members of the American Chemistry Council, a leading plastics lobby.
“Our position on climate change and the urgent need to reach net zero is unequivocal, and we have been backing up those words with action for decades
,” a McKinsey spokesperson said in an email. The American Chemistry Council didn’t return requests for comment.
A Climate Group spokesperson defended the inclusion of McKinsey and major plastics brands. “We won’t tackle climate change by only speaking with businesses or governments who are top performers. We need to engage with those who have further to go still.”
To those hoping for a strong plastics treaty, one of the most disappointing developments came from a report published by the United Nations Environment Program this May.
Co-written with Systemiq, a consulting firm that has advised the fossil fuel and plastics industries, the report
generated a flurry of media attention for the main takeaway: that the interventions it listed would reduce global plastic pollution 80% by 2040 compared with what otherwise would have happened.
But its authors did not consider feedback from a large group of independent scientists and suggested several solutions that are favored by industry.
The report was “written from a certain worldview” that reflects business interests, said Ewoud Lauwerier, plastics policy expert at the advocacy group OceanCare. He called the report “highly problematic” in a 33-point thread on Twitter
Critics say the United Nations report emphasized waste management over the most important intervention — limiting the creation of new plastic. It’s a tactic that oil-rich nations like the United States have used in efforts to weaken the plastics treaty
Putting the focus on managing waste risks getting locked into a cycle where people have to keep producing plastic to feed those waste management systems, said Jane Patton, campaigns manager on the U.S. fossil economy at the Center for International Environmental Law. Some environmentalists have called for phasing out single-use plastics by 2040
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