Philip Landrigan, M.D., '63 director of the Program on Global Public Health and the Common Good and the Boston College Global Observatory on Planetary Health, is the lead author of a groundbreaking new report about the far-reaching health hazards of plastics manufacturing and pollution across the entire product life cycle.
Published in the journal Annals of Global Public Health and released in Monaco during Monaco Ocean Week, the study was undertaken by an international group of scientists led by the Observatory and partners at Australia’s Minderoo Foundation and the Centre Scientifique de Monaco.
In the following Q&A, Landrigan discusses the unprecedented scope of the study, the first to examine the economic, health, environmental, and social costs associated with plastics from the first stages of fabrication to the many end states of the material that is seemingly everywhere–in homes and businesses, buried in landfills, scattered along roadsides, amassing in oceans and waterways, and infiltrating the bodies of humans and animals.
Countless studies have examined plastic pollution and health risks. What is different about this analysis?
This is the first analysis to look at hazards to human health caused by plastics across their entire life cycle - cradle to grave – beginning with extraction of the coal, oil and gas from which nearly all plastics are made, through production and use, and on to the point where plastic wastes are thrown into landfills, dumped into the ocean or shipped overseas.
Previous studies have looked at pieces of the plastic life cycle. They have looked at the problem from many different perspectives based on expertise in air pollution, or the oceans, or fracking, or medicine. But until now, nobody has looked at the entire problem all at once. That is what is different about our approach…that and the fact that we focused very specifically on plastics’ impacts on human health.
Why did you do this study at this time?
We did this study because we are very concerned about the impacts for human and planetary health of massive, almost exponential recent increases in plastic production and plastic waste. Eight billion tons of plastic have been produced since 1950, more than half of it in the last 20 years, and production is on track to treble by 2050. This plastic contains thousands of toxic and cancer-causing chemicals that can leach out of the plastic at every stage. And because plastic does not break down in the environment and less than 10 percent is recycled, an estimated six billion tons of chemical-laden plastic waste now contaminate the earth’s environment. This is not sustainable.
Describe the role of the Observatory and its partners at the Centre Scientifique de Monaco and the Minderoo Foundation of Australia in the creation of the Monaco Commission on Plastics and Human Health?
The mission of the Global Observatory on Planetary Health is to look at the big threats to humanity in the 21st Century, including climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss. This study fits right into the center of our agenda and that of the Schiller Institute, which was founded on a vision to expand BC’s research into health, energy and the environment. This study builds also on our earlier work with the Prince Albert of Monaco Foundation and Centre Scientifique de Monaco, starting with our 2020 report on human health and ocean pollution. The Minderoo Foundation is the biggest foundation in Australia and they are very much concerned about the hazards of plastics and have produced a great deal of information on the subject. They came to us and asked us to participate. The Commission is the group of scientists who worked on this report, who bring expertise from around the world. They include my Boston College colleagues Vice Provost for Research and Dr. Michael E. '86 and Dr. Salvatore A. '54 DeLuca Endowed Professor in Biology Thomas Chiles, Reverend Michael P. Walsh, '33, M.A.'35, L.H.D.'75 (hon.) Chair in Bioethics Andrea Vicini SJ, Professor of Law David Wirth, Chemistry Professor Jia Niu, as well as current and former BC undergraduates Caroline Bald ‘23, Carly Griffin ‘24, Hannah Ianelli ‘24, Ella Whitman ‘23, Jenna Mu ’22 and Aroub Yousuf ’22.
What is the Global Plastics Treaty? Does it already exist?
It does not exist yet, but it is in negotiation. Two years ago, the United Nations Environment Assembly – the annual meeting of environmental leaders from around the world convened by UN – approved a resolution calling for creation of a Global Plastics Treaty. Now international negotiators are working to put it together. Our report is intended to inform the Treaty negotiations. We conclude with a series of recommendations specifically written to dovetail with the negotiations. The Global Plastics Treaty is still two to three years away. But it will resonate with other treaties, including the agreement reached earlier this month known as the Oceans Treaty.
What will it take to, as the report recommends, end plastics pollution by 2040?
A group of global leaders, the High Ambition Coalition, established that target. We thought it was a reasonable goal and we incorporated it into our report. Clearly, we are not going to live without plastic products. Many are essential. But we have to ensure that the plastic we do use is safely produced and properly disposed. Currently, plastic recycling is a failure. Only 10 percent of all plastic is recycled (compared to 75 percent of paper). Not because people don’t want to recycle. But once plastic gets to a sorting facility, most items contain too many toxic chemicals to be safely recycled. As a result, chemical-laden plastic waste is shipped around the world to end up in some of the world’s poorest countries. It ends up in landfills or it is burned, often harming communities that host those facilities.
We try to make a very clear distinction in this report between essential uses of plastic and non-essential uses. A lot of plastic is not essential, particularly single-use plastic like product wrapping. That’s not accidental. The fossil fuel industry sees its markets for gasoline and other fuels declining as the world goes green and they are therefore diverting increasing amounts of coal, oil and gas into plastic manufacture and creating new markets for plastic. The goal of the Global Plastics Treaty is to put a brake on this this runaway production while at the same time preserving essential uses of plastic
What is the Permanent Science Policy Advisory Body, which the study also recommends be created?
The Permanent Science Policy Advisory Body would be created to inform the work of the Treaty and its negotiators and participants with scientific evidence. All big global agreements, or treaties, need scientific support. They need access to individuals with expertise to make sure the treaty reflects the most recent science. These treaties are never static, they must continually be updated to reflect the best current knowledge.
What was the significance of releasing this report at the beginning of Monaco Ocean Week?
Monaco Ocean Week brings together key stakeholders in the marine sector, from industry, conservation, academia, and government. Releasing the report at this major international meeting underscores the link between plastic pollution and ocean pollution. It is also significant in that Prince Albert II of Monaco is putting his full weight behind the issue. Monaco is a small country, but he is a head of state. He has a seat at the U.N. of equal rank to U.S. President Joseph Biden. When a head of state puts his muscle and his credibility behind a new report or initiative, as Prince Albert is courageously doing here, that is significant.
Is Prince Albert II uniquely positioned to lead on this issue?
Absolutely. He’s his own man and there is also a tradition in his family of protecting the oceans. He’s the third generation of his family to make ocean protection his cause.
This report intends to drive change at a global scale. What makes you confident that can be done?
I am an optimist. I have learned from long experience that the first step in bringing about change is to assemble the facts. That is what we have done in this report. Once data have been collected showing that a material like plastic is causing great harm to human health and the earth’s environment, it is harder for people to say there is no problem. That won’t bring about change overnight, but facts are stubborn things and they don’t go away. Given time, I suspect that the Global Plastic Treaty will be established, checks and balances will be placed on plastic production, and that the currently unrestrained accumulation of plastic waste will slow. We now have an Ocean Treaty, and we have the Paris Climate Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so things are moving in the right direction. As a proud Boston College graduate and member of the Boston College faculty, I feel it’s my responsibility to do my bit to live the Jesuit mission to protect our Common Home, to push for change, and to try to advance the Common Good.
Ed Hayward | University Communications | March 2023