chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.


Spring 2024: Plastic

Vantage Point

Mary Ellen Ternes


  • Discussion of how plastic pollution must go beyond reduce and recycle and address greenhouse gases, chemicals, microplastic, and threats to human health and the environment.
  • Learn the status of the world’s response to plastic pollution, divisions and areas of convergence, technical challenges, and opportunities for solutions.
  • Canada’s plastic regulation may impact U.S.-Canada trade, a trend that may become more common as the world seeks to address the problems inherent in plastic production and pollution.
Vantage Point
Anton Petrus via Getty Images

Jump to:

There is now broad recognition that we are facing a triple planetary crisis of interlinked issues: climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. This issue is devoted to one of these three interlinked issues: pollution. Specifically, pollution related to plastic, including greenhouse gases, chemicals, plastic, and microplastic, with comprehensive coverage of the status of the world’s response, divisions and areas of convergence, technical challenges and opportunities for solutions, disparate impacts, and related issues of fairness along with practical avenues to action.

Consider the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change discussion and Inger Andersen’s July 14, 2020, speech, “The Triple Planetary Crisis: Forging a New Relationship Between People and the Earth,” delivered at the Subcommittee meeting of the United Nations Environment Programme Committee of Permanent Representatives. “The common thread, in a sense, that runs through this triple planetary crisis is unsustainable production and consumption.” With the well-published literature regarding planetary microplastic saturation, these words ring true and quite loudly regarding plastic.

Similar to production trajectories of asbestos in the 1970s, before litigation and regulation tamed the asbestos consumption beast, plastic production is predicted to significantly increase, unless we act. The bulk of current plastic products rely on fossil carbon sources, consist of highly variable constituents, do not meaningfully degrade, and in the environment, have nowhere to go. And so now, we find it everywhere—the definition of saturation—with harm observed but not yet defined.

With this issue, our initial article provides a summary of the United Nations Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee’s progress on a global plastic treaty pursuant to the UN Environment Assembly’s Resolution 5/14 entitled “End plastic pollution: Towards an international legally binding instrument.” In the following articles, authors provide a range of perspectives regarding recycling, from the necessity of responsible and safe recycling to the challenges in implementing such approaches and the fundamental implications of potentially enabling escalating plastic consumption through reliance on such technology given its challenges. Discussion continues regarding other strategies for addressing plastic waste and plastic pollution in the context of our current solid waste management policies and the complexity of the current plastic inventory, including taxation, policy changes needed to make the Toxic Substances Control Act more effective in supporting advanced plastic recycling, and successful approaches utilized historically for other pollutants that could be transferable to plastic. A summary of Canada’s plastic regulation provides additional perspective regarding how plastic can be managed, as well as how Canada’s plastic regulation may impact U.S.-Canada trade. Another discussion makes the business case for progressive measures to re-envision plastic for its inherent utility, regulating plastic production appropriately given emerging research demonstrating plastic pollution risk to human health and the environment. Our final article illustrates plastic advocacy in action through clinical legal education.

Given rapidly developing policy regarding plastic, readers will want to continue to follow these issues as they develop. State-by-state regulatory development and plastic litigation may soon force plastic production and plastic reliant business interests to seek even playing fields and relief from unpredictable outcomes with regulatory safe harbors.