A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the First Round of Negotiations for a Global Plastics Treaty
Could countries come together to find a solution to the plastic pollution crisis? International collaboration on environmental issues has a mixed track record. The Montreal Protocol successfully reduced the refrigerants and other chemicals burning a hole in the ozone layer, but the efforts of the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are still not on track to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions enough to stave off the worst impacts of the climate crisis.
Now, nations are trying again with an international treaty on plastic pollution. The first meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) to draft what the UN is calling “an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment” took place in Punta del Este, Uruguay, last week, from November 28 to December 2. In attendance were representatives from Plastic Oceans International — the nonprofit behind the annual Trees & Seas festival for which EcoWatch acts as Global Media Partner — who shared with us a behind-the-scenes look at the historic and high-stakes negotiations.
“This treaty, if done well, will influence everyday life, and some countries and interest groups are willing to use that as an excuse to water down this treaty and its ambition,” Mark Minneboo, director of advocacy at Plastic Oceans International, told EcoWatch in an email. “Plastic has become such an integral part of life over the last 70 years, it’s very useful and we have all benefited from it. But this ‘out of control plastic party’ is over and now we have to clean up the mess and find a way to deal with plastic in a responsible way.”
Paris for Plastics?
Like the climate and biodiversity crises, the plastic pollution problem is an example of how dominant social and economic systems are out of step with a liveable Earth. A 2022 study found that plastic and chemical pollution had exceeded the planetary boundary for “novel entities” added to Earth’s ecosystems. The total amount of plastic today weighs more than double the combined mass of all living animals, and around 80 percent of all the plastics ever manufactured linger in the environment. Microplastics have turned up everywhere from the ocean floor to Mount Everest. Plastic trash has proven deadly to animal life, and the production and disposal of plastics harms the health and well-being of human communities.
Yet this problem will only intensify if nothing is done. A report from the OECD found that plastic production is on track to nearly triple by 2060. What’s more, less than a fifth of that would be recycled, and nearly two-thirds of it would be single-use items.
“If we want a world that is free of plastic pollution, in line with the ambitions of the United Nations Environment Assembly, we will need to take much more stringent and globally co-ordinated action,” OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann said when the report was released this year.
A pathway towards that coordinated action came out of the last UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, this March. UN member states endorsed a resolution to craft a legally binding treaty by the end of 2024 that would address plastic throughout its lifecycle, from production to disposal.
“This is the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the Paris accord,” UN Environment Programme Executive Director Inger Andersen said at the time.
But, as the first round of negotiations came and went, some nations and organizations are hoping it can be better. A group of countries led by Rwanda and Norway are uniting under the banner of the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution. They want to see plastic pollution brought to an end by 2040 and are pushing for a treaty that would reduce plastic making and use to sustainable levels, develop a truly circular economy for plastic products that reduces their negative health impacts and establish a mechanism for disposing of and recycling plastic waste in an environmentally friendly manner.
Further, they are in favor of a top-down approach to this treaty, Minneboo explained. This would mean the treaty would set legally binding global targets that signatories have to meet, in contrast to the bottom-up approach favored by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, in which countries make voluntary commitments. This would be similar to the Paris agreement approach, in which nations submit their own emissions reduction goals. But it should be noted that national pledges under the Paris agreement currently have the world on track for 2.4 to 2.6 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100.
Plastic Oceans was one of several civil society groups also backing a top-down approach.
“Many of the observing organizations and institutions made clear during their interventions that a treaty like the Paris agreement would not be enough to solve the plastic pollution crisis,” Minneboo said.
How likely is an ambitious, top-down treaty based on the first round of negotiations?
“It’s too early to draw conclusions about where the INC process is heading as it’s only the first of five meetings,” Minneboo said. “This meeting was mainly focused on setting up the framework and rules of procedure. But there were many ambitious statements from countries and organizations with observer status, who had the chance to intervene in the plenary sessions and make clear what plastic pollution related issues should be considered in the treaty.”
One of those procedural questions, for example, focused on whether the EU would be able to vote on behalf of its members. However, there was one concerning sign for the future ambition of the treaty: the presence of lobbyists for the petrochemical industry. The presence of fossil fuel lobbyists during the COP process has been a repeated issue raised by campaigners concerned about the lack of progress at the UN climate talks.
Minneboo said there were “At least a handfull of petrochemical lobbyists… very actively engaging and interacting with country delegates during the entire week.”
At the stakeholder dialogue ahead of the talks, Minneboo said an American Chemistry Council lobbyist even moderated his breakout session.
Greenpeace has also raised concerns about the plastic industry’s presence going forward, as well as stalling tactics from oil-producing nations.
“We demand that world leaders deliver a strong and ambitious treaty that will dramatically reduce plastic production and use, open inclusive and justice-centered discussions, and ensure that the next INCs are free from industry interference,” Global Plastic Project Lead at Greenpeace USA Graham Forbes said in a statement emailed to EcoWatch.
Inclusions and Definitions
Over the weeklong discussion, there were many important points raised about who and what should be included in the treaty. Waste pickers — who are disproportionately exposed to plastic toxins as part of their work — were vocal about being a part of downstream solutions to plastic waste.
“We achieved something that for us was important to be established within this agreement, which is the recognition of the work that we do — a historical work, a work carried out over decades, from generation to generation,” Chilean National Association of Waste Pickers President Soledad Mella said after the treaty resolution was first passed. “In fact, up to the fourth or fifth generation of men and women who have taken care of waste and, above all, that we were placed in this environmental chain as one of the most important links in the process.”
There was also emphasis on how plastics are a health and human rights issue as well as an environmental one. There are more than 10,000 chemicals known to be added to plastics, and at least 2,400 of them have been linked to health risks.
“Plastics and associated chemicals pose a risk to human health, especially to the most vulnerable groups in our society, women, waste pickers and in general developing countries that receive waste from developed countries without having proper infrastructure to manage it,” Minneboo said.
While the concerns of the most vulnerable are especially important for crafting a just plastics treaty, the rapid timeline for negotiations led to a concern that poorer nations would have a harder time sending more than one delegate to all of the future meetings. There were calls for the UN to finance at least two delegates per upcoming session.
Finally, Minneboo expressed concerns that the process had not yet produced a shared meaning of “circular economy” and “circular design.” He pointed out that some use circularity to describe a system primed for recycling while others mean that items should be made to be reused, and that this issue should really have been clarified already.
“Each concept has an impact in a completely different part of the lifecycle of plastics: one helps turning off the plastic tap and reduces the use of virgin plastic and the other only diverts resources away from landfill and the environment but doesn’t turn off the tap at all,” Minneboo said. “My hope is that this will be high on the agenda during INC2, in May 2023.”
Ultimately, he emerged from the negotiations still convinced of the need for an effective treaty.
“A global treaty that takes care of all the impact plastic has during its entire life cycle, that promotes circular economy practices, in communities big and small, is the only way to deal with this crisis,” he said.
If you want to learn more before the next round of negotiations kicks off in Paris, France the week of May 22, Minneboo and Plastic Oceans International CEO and founder Julie Andersen shared a Masterclass about the process and the issues involved online as part of this year’s Trees & Seas Festival.