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End Plastic Pollution or Plastic Production? That Is the Question at INC-3

At the third session of the global plastic treaty talks, the answer depends on what part of the world you call home.

Geoff Giordano

November 13, 2023

4 Min Read
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MicroStockHub/iStock via Getty Images

The third negotiating session on a global treaty to curb plastics pollution began Monday in Nairobi with a stark message.

“Nature is suffocating — gasping for breath,” declared Jyoti Mathur-Filipp, executive secretary of the INC Secretariat at the start of Monday’s opening plenary of the third Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3). “All ecosystems, terrestrial and marine, are under threat from plastic pollution. Not only vulnerable and endangered species are at risk, but all diversity of life on our planet hangs in the balance.

“Our own health is at stake, too. Burning plastic waste has been linked to increased risk of heart diseases and aggravating respiratory problems — and microplastics have been found in human blood and accumulate in our organs. We hold in our hands the power to correct this destructive course that our actions have led us on — and hopefully heal the planet we call our home. We need to plot a new course on plastics to preserve the intricate and fragile web of life that sustains us all.”

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) seeks to develop a legally binding instrument regulating plastic pollution worldwide, with negotiations being completed by the end of 2024.

Addressing the full life cycle of plastic

UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen reminded delegates during the INC-3 opening plenary that the resolution to create a global plastics treaty calls for an instrument that is “based on a comprehensive approach that addresses the full life cycle of plastic . . . not an instrument that deals with plastic pollution from recycling or waste management alone. . . . This means rethinking everything along the chain, from polymer to production, from product to packaging. We need to use fewer virgin materials, less plastic, and no harmful chemicals.”

Ultimately, she said, INC-3 “must see a strong next iteration of the (treaty) draft and a mandate for the chair to get ready for the next round of negotiations.”

The opening day agenda of INC-3 included two plenary sessions to establish rules of procedure and organization of work, then begin preparing an international instrument, based on the “zero draft” document issued after INC-2. Contact groups began meeting Monday and will meet daily through Saturday. Three more plenary sessions will close INC-3 on Saturday and Sunday.

During the opening plenary, delegates’ perspectives on how to proceed beyond the zero draft were read from a report summarizing the INC-3 preparatory meeting held Saturday. Negotiators’ concerns range from the incorporation of language affirming human rights in the preamble of the final document to the inclusion of internationally agreed-upon definitions for terms like primary and secondary polymers, the life cycle of plastic, “problematic” plastic products, and chemicals of concern.

Bottom-up or top-down approach?

The primary divide in the negotiations is whether to manage plastics pollution from the “bottom up” — making nations responsible for environmental cleanup and costs — or mandate a stricter approach that clearly limits or bans production of “problematic” and hard-to-recycle plastics.

For instance, Saudi Arabia on Saturday launched the Global Coalition for Plastics Sustainability to push for a treaty that focuses on managing waste rather than controlling production. Coalition members include Russia, Iran, Cuba, China, and Bahrain. US negotiators, likewise, are focusing on ending plastic pollution, not plastic production, according to Matthew Kastner, spokesperson for the International Council of Chemical Associations.

Plastics producers versus developing nations

The gulf in perspective between large plastics-producing nations versus the developing world was clear in the statement delivered by the Palau delegation on behalf of the 14 Pacific small island developing states. Noting that 23 million tons of plastic are released into the environment annually, with more than half ending up in oceans, plastic pollution often originating “far from our shores” generates “tremendous public” cost in the region, undermining everything from tourism and fisheries to “cultural, economic, and social ties to the environment and ocean.

“While we agree that the invention of plastic has helped improve lives around the world, this cannot be an argument to lessen the ambition of the future treaty,” said the delegation. “The modern world is addicted to plastic. . . . This planetary crisis, which is compounded by climate change and biodiversity loss, can lead to the demise of our human race and requires nothing less than a revolution — a revolution in how we produce, in how we consume, and in what we tolerate.”

The UNEP resolved in March 2022 to pursue a global plastics treaty, followed by negotiating sessions INC-1 in Uruguay from Nov. 28 to Dec. 2, 2022, and INC-2 in Paris from May 29 to June 2, 2023. INC-4 is scheduled for April 21 to 30, 2024, in Ottawa. UNEP’s goal is to complete negotiations by the end of 2024.

The full INC-3 meeting schedule is available online.

Watch the INC-3 preparatory meeting (two parts), as well as sessions from INC-1 and INC-2. Live broadcasts can be seen on UN Web TV.

Read a Q&A with Jyoti Mathur-Filipp from UNEP.

The zero draft text and other INC-3 working documents can be found on the UNEP website.

About the Author(s)

Geoff Giordano

Geoff Giordano is a tech journalist with more than 30 years’ experience in all facets of publishing. He has reported extensively on the gamut of plastics manufacturing technologies and issues, including 3D printing materials and methods; injection, blow, micro and rotomolding; additives, colorants and nanomodifiers; blown and cast films; packaging; thermoforming; tooling; ancillary equipment; and the circular economy. Contact him at [email protected].

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