Plastics treaty talks: Scientists urge stricter rules on conflict of interest

A group of 35 scientists from around the world want to see stricter guidelines on conflict of interest applied to UN negotiations on plastics and chemicals.

The group of scientists, which includes representatives from the Universities of Exeter, Portsmouth, and Northumbria, have co-authored a paper in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

This accuses the plastic and chemical industries of using similar tactics as big tobacco and big oil to manufacture doubt and sow misinformation.

Professor Alex Ford, from the University of Portsmouth's School of Biological Sciences and Institute of Marine Sciences, said: “We saw how tobacco and oil industries hampered health and environmental regulation for decades, and plastic and chemical industries have followed a similar pattern of behaviour.”

The warning comes as countries prepare to meet next week for the third UN plastic treaty negotiation session in Nairobi. The plastic and petrochemical industries were present and actively lobbied at the first two rounds of the negotiations, making misleading statements about the role of plastic in society, without anyone taking action to curb the conflicts of interest, the scientists said. 

They expressed concern that similar issues could arise in the development of the UN Science Policy Panel on chemicals, waste, and pollution, which will support countries in their efforts to protect human and ecosystem health through scientific assessments. The working group to create the panel will meet in mid-December.

“Letting polluters have a say in pollution protections is the epitome of the fox guarding the henhouse,” said lead author Andreas Schäffer, a professor at the Institute for Environmental Research, RWTH Aachen University. 

“Just like the tobacco industry was restricted from WHO’s work on smoking, the UN shouldn’t let the chemical industry’s hired guns dilute global guidelines for chemical and waste management,” he added. 

The scientists want the process establishing the panel to define clear and strict provisions on conflict of interest; to be clear about the difference between conflicts of financial or political interests and legitimate interests or biases; mandate regular audits of the panel’s work to check for conflict of interest; and obtain as much transparency secured from organisations involved as possible.