A detailed study by Minderoo Foundation and undertaken with legal firm Clyde & Co and Praedicat, a liability risk consultancy, shows that plastic’s range of harmful impacts could trigger potentially colossal liability claims against the petrochemical industry, which manufactures the polymers and chemical additives used in plastic.
Just as oil and gas companies are now starting to be held legally and financially accountable for the climate change impact of their products and chemical companies for damaging the environment and human health (e.g. PFAS, glyphosate), a new wave of litigation is expected to emerge around plastics.
The report finds that just like fossil fuel companies and the climate impact of their products, plastic producers and distributers create the most extreme negative nature and human harming externalities ever witnessed in the history of mankind—a price borne by every child, woman, and man on this planet.
Legal action is expected to centre on the US, where the study forecasts corporate liabilities from plastics litigation triggered in 2022-30 could exceed $20 billion. Future claims, beyond 2030, could be an order of magnitude larger.
The research is supported by the United Nations Environment Programme’s Finance Initiative.
- The study finds that manufacturers of chemical additives used in plastics, many of which have well-established, harmful links to human health, are the most exposed to litigation risk.
- Also exposed are manufacturers of plastic polymers, whose products ultimately degrade into micro- and nanoplastic particles, which persist in the environment for decades, entering the human food chain. They are rapidly emerging as major public health and environmental threats.
- These companies have been protected against financial consequences by the complexity of attributing pollution back to its source, but scientific methods and legal doctrines are evolving; plastic pollution liabilities are expected to follow.
- The plastics industry, shareholders, insurers, and regulators need to work urgently together to disclose the scale of exposures and liabilities to date, to prevent further damage and set aside the resources necessary to deal with the consequences.