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Plastic Treaty Update: Negotiations devolve into either/or narratives

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Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia. Image credit: Shutterstock/Maxim Blinkov

As the third round of negotiations for the United Nations international plastic treaty ended in Nairobi, Kenya, on November 19, 2023, outgoing negotiation chair Gustavo Adolfo Meza-Cuadra Velasquez said: “Much remains to be done both in narrowing down our differences and in developing technical work to inform our negotiations.”

On the day the negotiations began, November 13, 2023, CSIRO’s Deborah Lau published an article in PHYS.ORG describing the mutual benefits of the treaty. She said, “Regulatory tools such as multilateral agreements have three primary benefits:"

  1. They blend environmental responsibility with business imperatives. As a result, the regulatory changes open up new market opportunities.
  2. Global collaborations driven by these agreements often encourage the transfer of technologies across borders. These collaborations speed up the adoption of cleaner technologies.
  3. Multilateral environmental agreements can drive technological progress and industrial innovation. By establishing high standards and fostering global collaboration, these agreements blend environmental stewardship with industrial evolution.

Either/or Narratives Emerge

Those benefits have not yet been fully embraced by the companies and countries with the largest economic interests in the plastic supply chain. Instead, several either/or narratives have emerged. OpenOceans Global believes that an "either/or" position needs to shift to an “and” position.

  • Global enforceable regulations or national plans. Both global enforceable regulations and national plans to implement them are needed.
  • Eliminate plastic production or recycle all plastic through a circular economy.A significant reduction in plastic production and recycling as much as possible is imperative. Both require technology, behavior change, supply change modifications, and new waste management flows.
  • Waste management or reducing plastic production. Plastic gets into the environment because of a lack of waste management. Universally implemented waste management standards would have avoided the ocean plastic crisis. Even if all single-use plastic is replaced by a non-plastic alternative, without quality waste management, discarded trash, even if it isn't plastic, will still flow into rivers and to the sea. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that 109 million metric tons of plastic are already in lakes and rivers, making their way to the ocean. That amount is expected to triple by 2060 without international regulations. If all plastic production could be stopped today, plastic would continue to flow into the ocean for decades to come. Quality waste management and a reduction in plastic produced are mecessary. Waste management is not an excuse to keep producing plastic.

According to the Associated Press, two additional key elements emerged from the treaty negotiations that are potentially problematic:

  • The draft treaty revision became longer due to new proposals during this round and will be more difficult to advance, and
  • States failed to reach a consensus on work between now and the next negotiation session in April.

Diverse Perspectives Abound

The many and diverse perspectives of the negotiating interests complicate the challenge of completing the treaty negotiations.

Some oil companies want to change the focus of the treaty away from the entire lifecycle of plastic to waste management. Additionally, as with the climate treaty, they want national voluntary measures instead of global measures.

Other industry representatives argue for the benefits of plastics, like its use in piping and as materials for lightweight electric cars, while also seeing the treaty as part of a move away from fossil-based production. Leaders from the vinyl and expanded polystyrene (EPS) industries have expressed opposition against restricting, capping production, or reducing plastic availability and say they will defend every aspect of their supply chains.

Other companies have a broader view. Consumer product makers like Mars Inc., Coca-Cola Co., and Nestle, which are part of the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty, believe the agreement should eliminate plastics that are hard to recycle, cut back on fossil-based plastics, or limit some production. One coalition member favors restrictions on plastic production “because the expected growth of virgin resin could make it difficult to reach the treaty's objectives.”

Greenpeace representative said, “You cannot solve the plastic pollution crisis if you do not massively cut plastic production.” A WWF International representative was in alignment. He said, "The negotiators must be guided not by what the least ambitious countries are prepared to accept, but by the urgency of the plastic pollution crisis.”

How to Bring the Treaty Home: We Must Change

In the end, all parties agree the common goal is the elimination of plastic pollution in the environment and from reaching the ocean. How to get there is the challenge. The plastic negotiations host, Kenyan President William Ruto, had perhaps the best perspective on the problem. "We must change the way we consume, the way we produce, and how we dispose of our waste. Change is inevitable. This instrument [treaty] that we are working on is the first domino in that change. Let us bring it home," he said.


This Deeper Dive was developed in part from a review of the following resources:

  • Weeklong negotiations for landmark treaty to end plastic pollution close, marred in disagreementsAP News
  • In UN talks for a global plastic treaty, delegates to face off over production limitsReuters
  • Sustainable Switch
  • Nations negotiate terms of global plastic pollution treaty in KenyaFrance24
  • We need a global treaty to solve plastic pollution - acid rain and ozone depletion show us whyPHYS.ORG
  • As plastics treaty talks restart, industry hopes pact boosts move away from fossil fuel productionPlastics News
  • Vinyl industry talks benefits, fights restrictions at treaty talksPlastics News
  • An ‘uneasy truce' on opening day of plastics treaty talksPlastics News
  • EPS industry works to avoid status as ‘problematic' at treaty talksPlastics News
  • Mixed signs of agreement, warnings mark end of latest treaty talksPlastics News
  • Resin makers, brand owners differ on plastics treaty prioritiesPlastics News


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