World Moves Closer to a Global Plastics Treaty

Ocean plastic waste in a catching machine
File image courtesy Ocean Cleanup

Published Jun 25, 2023 5:05 PM by Dialogue Earth

[By Emma Bryce]

Each year, an estimated 200 tonnes of plastic drifts down the River Seine through Paris and into the sea. It’s a tiny fraction of the 14 million tonnes that tips into the ocean annually. The problems in the ocean are pronounced, but plastic is now so ubiquitous that it affects all ecosystems. So, in late May, delegates from 180 nations came to the French capital to begin laying out the first treaty to control plastic production and waste.

On 2 June, weary delegates and observers left the week-long meeting with a sense of relief. Many nations had agreed in principle on some of the core elements of a future treaty. These included the need to cap plastic production, manage microplastics and ghost gear, and regulate high-risk plastic products and the chemicals that leach out of them.

A “zero draft”, a reference document for the final treaty, is to be written by the next meeting in November, with the goal to have the final agreement enforced in 2025.

Despite suspicions over industry lobbying, and delays caused by procedural debates, environmental campaigners are hopeful for an effective treaty. “Right now, we’re in a good place. We’re basing that optimism on the large number of countries who actually want to commit to something meaningful,” says Eirik Lindebjerg, global plastics policy manager at WWF.

There was a sense from civil society that it must keep up the pressure on governments between now and November to make sure ambitious elements make their way into the zero draft.

Delay tactics slow progress

The meeting, convened by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), was called INC-2, as it was the second of five to be held by the International Negotiating Committee, the body formed to draft the treaty. The whole process was triggered in February 2022 when nations adopted a historic resolution on plastics in Nairobi.

The Paris meeting, held at UNESCO headquarters, was the first time delegates could get stuck into discussing what the treaty text might contain. Countries had submitted a wishlist of options ahead of time. Delegates split into two “contact groups” – one to discuss the elements of the treaty text, the other to talk about implementation mechanisms such as financing and technology transfer. The goal was to build a clear picture of what countries want in the zero draft.

But this process got off to a rocky start, with nations gridlocked in closed-door debates over procedural issues. These hinged on disagreements about whether future provisions would be passed by vote or by consensus.

Some observers saw this as a tactic by certain countries to delay the contact group talks. “The main country drivers included Saudi Arabia, Russia, and India. Brazil also contributed, but perhaps in a secondary position,” says Sirine Rached, global plastics policy coordinator at non-profit the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA).

Rached said that, notably, these nations refused the option to simultaneously work on both the vote versus consensus issue and the negotiations. Many experts have noted that the dissenting nations have large fossil fuel and petrochemical interests, which underpin the plastics industry.

The deadlock was broken by Wednesday night when nations agreed to record the differing opinions in the meeting report but left the problem unsolved. Civil society groups fear this leaves the issue to resurface at future meetings and potentially slow negotiations. However, the compromise did allow the talks to continue at INC-2.

Countries opting for holistic approach

In recent years, understanding has shifted from plastic being a problem of waste alone, to it being a material that causes harm to the environment and people, across its lifecycle.

Its fossil fuel feedstocks generate emissions that increase ocean warming. Chemicals added during production threaten the health of humans and other species. In nature, it can smother ecosystems, cause disease, disrupt breeding and kill wildlife, all while gradually fragmenting into microplastics that infiltrate the air, water, and bodies of fish we eat – delivering the problem back to us.

This harmful waste is tied to plastic’s accelerating production: we make 400 million tonnes of the material annually and 40% of that is disposable packaging. New plastic is constantly entering the world and yet we’re not managing it: 50% of all plastic festers in mounting landfills, and another 22% lands up in uncontrolled dumps sites, or the wider environment.

“The entire system is broken, and it requires a complete reshaping of the global plastics economy,” says Christina Dixon, ocean campaign lead at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a UK-based nonprofit.

Prior to the talks, a coalition of High Ambition governments, as well as civil society groups, had emphasised that to address the full scope of concerns, a treaty should include legally binding obligations to cap virgin plastic production, to design safer products for reuse and refill, and include financing mechanisms to enable these changes.

Paris was a chance to show this commitment during the contact group talks. From the perspective of civil society who attended the meeting, there were some clear wins. Observers at the group talks said there was widespread agreement on measures to ban, regulate, and dial back the production of high-risk polymers and plastic products (which could include single-use items). Similarly, “it was really encouraging to hear not one or two, but a significant number of countries calling for significant production cuts, with no ambiguity,” says GAIA’s Rached. A coalition of companies, including Unilever, is also pushing for reduction.

Observers said that country statements issued during the contact groups discussions were also largely supportive of including measures in the final treaty to regulate the chemicals added to plastics, which have a tendency to leach out, explains Anja Brandon, associate director of US plastics policy at the Ocean Conservancy, a non-profit based in Washington DC.

Large industry presence

Despite this progress, the presence of 190 representatives from plastics and petrochemical industries drew concern from civil society groups about lobbying. There were already suspicions about industry’s influence on UNEP when the body published a solutions report in the lead up to INC-2. A consultancy firm called Systemiq which helped draft the report also consults for the plastic industry, says Neil Tangri, science and policy director at GAIA.

“Both the content and the process by which this report was prepared were highly questionable,” he says. The document included controversial downstream waste-management measures like chemical recycling and incineration. Both cause harmful emissions, while research in the US has found that chemical recycling rarely reduces virgin plastic production, because most of the waste plastic this process uses as raw material is transformed into fuel or chemicals, not useable plastic.

Some companies and several countries either gave statements or made submissions in the lead up to INC-2 that prioritised the role of downstream measures in solving the crisis, rather than upstream curbs on production. But scientists like ecotoxicologist Bethanie Carney-Almroth caution that even widespread downstream measures like recycling can’t dig us out of the growing trash pile that runaway production has made. She explains that’s partly because of the mind-boggling array of 13,000 chemicals used to make plastics, and the ingredients that “migrate into plastics” from the substances they contained, such as pesticides.

Several of these chemicals are hazardous, and the diversity makes it near impossible to separate plastic in waste streams. “Right now, recycling is a hot mess… What we’re looking for is a transition to a safe and sustainable future, and the way things are done now does not allow for that,” says Carney-Almroth, who studies the environmental impacts of plastic and its chemicals at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. These challenges limit the material’s circularity, and partly explain why just 9% of plastic is recycled globally.

Limited access for NGOs

Controversy over inclusion fed into the tensions that simmered beneath the surface in Paris. Before the meeting, UNEP said that five members could be registered per NGO, and NGOs believed that all five would then have access to the UNESCO building, Dixon says. But just two weeks before the meeting, UNEP announced it would limit the number of access badges to one per NGO. Several participants who had planned to attend decided to opt out: “Many people, who had invested a lot of money bringing front line communities and Indigenous peoples, as well as small global south NGOs, to the meeting, could no longer guarantee any substantive participation,” Dixon explains.

The Centre for Environmental International Law called on UNEP to prioritise civil society representatives, who they said had more cause to be there than the 190 industry representatives. While access did improve over the course of the event, for those who had cancelled travel, it was too late – meaning that INC-2 had a smaller civil society delegation than originally planned.

UNEP explained that due to the number of organisations who had registered, the size of some country delegations, and space constraints at the venue, they had had to impose a limit on numbers. But the process fuelled suspicion: “It seems like there’s a coordinated effort to keep us quiet,” says Jo Banner, a co-founder of the non-profit Descendants Projects, which advocates for residents of Louisiana’s Cancer Alley. “It’s really bad… that we don’t have access to really communicate what our communities are facing.”

Implementation approach 

WWF analysis of countries’ pre-INC-2 submissions showed that 135 states agreed that the treaty should contain legally binding elements, not only voluntary measures – and there was a similar level of support for this at the talks, Lindebjerg says.

A treaty with legally binding elements would, for instance, require countries to take specific actions to achieve the overarching goal of the plastic treaty to reduce pollution. This is different to the voluntary approach taken in the Paris Agreement, for example, where states are left to decide their own steps to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Legally binding measures are essential considering the transboundary movement of ocean plastic, says Sefanaia Nawadra, director general of the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Program, which oversees the interests of Pacific Island nations, particularly affected by plastic waste. “The whole reason we are coming to this negotiation is that a global mandate is needed. National and regional action hasn’t been able to fix this issue,” Nawadra says.

Promising support for reducing ocean harms

The ocean received the spotlight at key points in the talks. There was almost unanimous agreement that the treaty should ban or control intentionally added microplastics. Several nations also raised statements in support of measures to manage ghost fishing gear. This contributes 20% of marine plastic pollution, and is considered especially harmful to wildlife.

“Support for the inclusion of [measures on ghost gear], while not universally expressed, is looking promising,” says Joel Baziuk, associate director of the Global Ghost Gear Initiative. He noticed a larger focus on oceans in Paris compared to INC-1. “I think that’s a significant win, and hopefully the conversation continues in that direction.”

Civil society: keeping the momentum going

WWF’s Lindebjerg says the goal between now and INC-3 in November is to maintain momentum, and watch out for attempts to water down the zero draft and upcoming treaty text.

Several civil society groups have pledged to track lobbying efforts, and push for better inclusion of underrepresented groups. Meanwhile, Dixon, from the Environmental Investigation Agency, says negotiators have to get stuck into the details of what a robustly written treaty text should say, “particularly around chemicals in plastics and plastic polymers, and how restrictions could work in practice.”

Between now and INC-3, nation representatives will meet informally to discuss some of the details of the zero draft and to identify gaps.

There’s a lot to get through in the coming six months – let alone the next two years – to reach that treaty goal by 2025. Global Ghost Gear Initiative’s Baziuk says: “It’s optimistic, but I think it reflects the urgency of the problem.”

Emma Bryce is a freelance journalist who covers stories focused on the environment, conservation and climate change.

This article appears courtesy of China Dialogue Ocean and may be found in its original form here.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.