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An assessment of the status of the international plastic treaty negotiations

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Negotiators ponder text changes on April 28, 2024.
Image credit: Earth Negotiations Bulletin

In March 2022, the U.N. Environment Assembly adopted a resolution “to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment” and scheduled five negotiating sessions.

The fourth and next-to-last session (INC-4) of the international plastic treaty negotiations took place in Ottawa, Canada, from April 23 to April 29, 2024. The first three sessions involved organizational efforts and the gathering of options into what is known as the zero draft. Negotiations on text changes and country positions had been stymied until the April negotiations over the following issues:

  • Lack of agreement on the decision-making process – by consensus, which would allow one nation to block a decision, or by a two-thirds vote.
  • Whether the treaty should require enforceable international regulations or allow nations to devise their own methods to address plastic within their borders, much like the climate treaty.
  • Whether to focus efforts on restricting plastic production or to focus on recycling and the circular economy.

On a positive note, in April the negotiating committee agreed to hold intersessional meetings of two groups of experts to work on the draft treaty language before the final negotiating session in Busan, Korea, in November 2024.

The intersessional topics being addressed give a preview of the treaty’s ultimate focus:

  1. Assessing the chemicals of concern in plastic products and looking at product design.
  2. How to finance the implementation of the treaty.

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A message calling for cuts to plastic production.
Image credit: Earth Negotiations Bulletin 

Reductions in plastic production are off the table

Environmental organizations and a group of more than 50 countries known as the High Ambition Coalition are upset that reductions in plastic production are being left out of the negotiations. Environmental organizations have long advocated that the only way to address plastic pollution is to turn off the tap at the top of the plastic supply chain where primary polymers and plastic products are produced.

Is it possible to reduce plastic production quickly through international regulations? Plastic production is so embedded in the global economy and the delivery of goods, especially food, that even the most progressive regulations will require a long transition period to be implemented. In addition, several countries oppose limits on plastic production and have effectively blocked that option from being included in the treaty, at least for now.

Chris Jahn, council secretary of the International Council of Chemical Associations, in an April 30, 2024, article in PHYS.ORG, said the industry is "fully committed to a legally binding agreement" on plastic waste, but one that does not "eliminate the massive societal benefits plastics provide for a healthier and more sustainable world."

With reductions in plastic production off the table, many environmental groups feel the treaty will fail. "You cannot end plastic pollution if you do not reduce the amount of plastic we produce," Greenpeace's Graham Forbes told Plastics News on April 30, 2024. "This treaty will succeed or fail based on the extent to which it addresses and reduces plastic production. Nothing else will work if we don't get that right."

Plastic industry advocates also want a treaty that focuses on recycling, creating a circular plastic economy.

Is recycling the answer to plastic pollution? With recycling rates between 5% and 9% globally, there is a long road to reaching 100%. Although PET bottle recycling has exceeded 90% in countries as diverse as Norway and India, many types of plastic cannot be recycled using existing technologies.

In the April 30 PHYS.ORG article, Alejandra Parra from Latin America called recycling a "false option." “A lot of plastic is not or cannot be recycled,” she said. “The process of melting plastics into new forms also has drawbacks because it releases toxins and carbon emissions.”

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Demonstrators in Ottawa ask for an end to exporting plastic waste.
Image creditEarth Negotiations Bulletin

Obstacles can be overcome

Some of the obstacles identified in the negotiating process can be overcome. For instance, the climate treaty (the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, known as the UNCFCC) has been in force since 1994, but the Parties have never adopted rules of procedure because of a similar disagreement over the rule for making decisions. As a result, they have “applied” the rules of procedure without adopting them for 30 years. The same can happen with the plastic treaty.

Another solvable problem is the decision about whether to have enforceable international regulations or national plans. The only credible international enforcement mechanism available is trade sanctions between countries. Participants will not agree to include trade sanctions in the treaty. According to experts consulted by OpenOceans Global, even if there were international regulations, their implementation would still largely depend on each country’s willingness to enforce them domestically.

Jodie Roussell, the global public affairs lead for packaging and sustainability at Nestlé, told attendees at an Innovation Forum webinar on May 1, 2024, that “I think we are going to see a lot of the decision-making impacted by national legislation and also by trade policy.”

The United States position

The United States is positioned between the High Ambition Coalition, which wants enforceable goals, and countries that want a voluntary national approach and flexibility. While the United States has strong environmental organizations advocating for restrictive, enforceable measures, it also has a large plastic economy and produces more plastic than any country other than China. The U.S. position is also hampered by not having a national recycling program or a country-wide plastic pollution reduction initiative upon which to base its position. There are 22,000 different recycling systems in the United States.

U.S. representatives anticipate the outcome will be similar to the climate treaty. In 1992, the world’s nations established the UNFCCC as a framework for international cooperation to combat climate change. This resulted in a conference of the parties (COP) where the nations gather annually to strengthen the agreement. In a May 7, 2024, Plastics News article, U.S. State Department diplomat Jonathan Gillibrand said a plastic treaty framework like the climate treaty would set up “20 years of pressure to do better on plastics … You have to have companies understand that they need to do a better job. They're going to have to do a better job designing the products [and] choosing the materials. Is it recyclable? Is it good for circularity? Is it better for greenhouse [emissions]?"

An easy victory is in no way guaranteed

In summarizing her assessment of the negotiations, Nestlé’s Roussell said, “Everyone is equally unhappy with where we are … The momentum of the group is more toward extra sessions before Busan, and a conclusion of the treaty in Busan.”

The Earth Negotiations Bulletin, an independent reporting service on United Nations environment and development negotiations, summed it up this way, “Creating a treaty on plastics has felt like the David vs Goliath tale. While the negotiating process started with lofty ambitions and confidence that a successful and strong treaty would emerge, it became clear at the fourth session … that Goliath had awakened, and the true battle had begun…and an easy victory is in no way guaranteed.”

NOTE: This post first appeared in the Deeper Dive section of the May 2024 The Transition Newsletter.


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