A new comprehensive analysis suggests that the petrochemical industry might face significant legal challenges owing to the harmful impacts of plastic pollution. The financial burden of these potential liabilities, derived from environmental clean-up, ecosystem disruption, and health-related issues, could surpass $100 billion annually, shining a spotlight on the escalating global plastic crisis.
This groundbreaking investigation, conducted by the Minderoo Foundation in collaboration with legal firm Clyde & Co and liability risk consultancy Praedicat, reveals the multifaceted detrimental effects of plastic. The study suggests that the petrochemical industry could be on the brink of major legal repercussions akin to those faced by oil, gas, and chemical companies regarding climate change and environmental damage.
The report anticipates a new surge of litigation surrounding plastics, following the precedent of fossil fuel companies being held responsible for their products' climatic implications. It asserts that the negative externalities of plastic production and distribution are among the most severe witnessed in human history, a cost borne universally.
The US is predicted to be the epicenter of such legal proceedings, with estimated corporate liabilities from plastics-related litigation exceeding $20 billion between 2022 and 2030. The projections for post-2030 claims indicate a tenfold increase.
This research, supported by the United Nations Environment Programme’s Finance Initiative, identifies manufacturers of chemical additives used in plastics as highly susceptible to litigation risk. These additives have well-documented harmful effects on human health. Manufacturers of plastic polymers, which degrade into persistent environmental micro- and nano-plastic particles entering the human food chain, are also under scrutiny.
Until now, the complexity of tracing pollution back to its origin has shielded these companies from financial implications. However, the evolution of scientific methods and legal doctrines suggests a shift towards holding these industries accountable for plastic pollution.
Dr. Andrew Forrest AO, Chairman of Minderoo Foundation, emphasized the urgent need for industry stakeholders to reveal the extent of liabilities and put measures in place to mitigate further damage. He drew attention to the toxic effects of plastic pollution on cognitive development, reproductive health, and chronic diseases such as obesity.
Geoff Summerhayes, former Executive Board Member of the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority and former Chair of UNEP’s Sustainable Insurance Forum highlighted the need for immediate action. He urged leaders to disclose the scale of the plastic pollution issue to ensure that industry and insurers allocate adequate resources to manage the repercussions.
Claudia Donzelmann, Global Head of Regulatory and Public Affairs at Allianz, who was part of the project advisory board, echoed the call for greater transparency and knowledge sharing to spur action. Bob Reville, CEO of Praedicat, labeled the plastic issue as the “next climate” due to its widespread environmental and health risk.
The study's conclusions present a unique opportunity for policymakers to address the societal costs and risks associated with plastic pollution. The findings serve as a stern warning to the plastics sector that the current negligence of this pressing problem is not a viable strategy. The potential legal and financial repercussions could be monumental, marking a watershed moment in the industry's history.