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Tackling the plastics challenge

| By Dorothy Lozowski

Plastic products have evolved to play a prominent role in our daily lives. They are generally durable and lightweight, making them ideal for a broad spectrum of applications, such as: improving efficiency of automobiles; extending the shelf-life of foods; providing insulation and sealants in buildings; use in household products, consumer electronics, medical equipment and more. The use of plastics has increased over the years, and according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP; Nairobi, Kenya;, the world currently produces 430 million metric tons of plastics each year [1]. The increased use of plastics, however, has also resulted in an increase in waste plastic, much of which is ending up in the environment as plastic pollution.


In late April, an international meeting was held in Ottawa to address the plastic pollution problem. It was the fourth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC), a group aimed at developing an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment. The Committee was formed in 2022 at the request of the executive director of UNEP to develop an instrument that addresses the full lifecycle of plastic, including its production, design and disposal. The Ottawa gathering (INC-4) was the Committee’s largest, with over 2,500 delegates. One more meeting (INC-5) is planned for November in Busan, Republic of Korea. The end of 2024 is the deadline that was set for the Committee’s work at the outset in 2022, making INC-5 the final scheduled meeting.

Progress was made at INC-4 in drafting text for a potentially international legally binding agreement. Discussions among the delegates included topics of emissions and releases, production, product design, waste management and more. The draft text reportedly includes the idea of limiting plastic production, even though there are strong objections to such limitations. Members agreed to continue their work in intersessional meetings to make more progress before INC-5 [2].


Producers focus on circularity

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA; Washington, D.C.; estimates that only about 9% of all plastics are recycled in the U.S., although some specific polymers are recycled at a higher rate — polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) were recycled at about 29% in 2018.

Plastic producers are looking to more significantly reduce the waste problem through a circular economy, with recycling as a major component. The group America’s Plastic Makers (, which is made up of the American Chemistry Council’s Plastics Division and its member companies, has outlined a number of guiding principles, as well as a strategy of five policy actions, that would accelerate a circular economy. Details of both can be found on the group’s website.

For continued up-to-date news on recycling, readers can subscribe to Chemical Engineering’s Sustainability e-newsletters at ■

Dorothy Lozowski, Editorial Director





1. UNEP, Turning off the Tap: How the world can end plastic pollution and create a circular economy, May 16, 2023.

2. Sources: Associated Press, 5 takeaways from the global negotiations on a treaty to end plastic pollution,; and UNEP, Road to Busan clear as negotiations on a global plastics treaty close in Ottawa,