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Global Plastics Treaty Talks: Buckle Up for Round Two

Ahead of the meeting in Paris at the end of May, the United Nations’ environmental body issued a report claiming countries can reduce plastic pollution by 80% by 2040 through existing technologies and major policy changes.

Geoff Giordano

May 17, 2023

7 Min Read
beach polluted by waste plastics
Parkpoom/iStock via Getty Images

With the United Nations (UN) poised to hold its second session to hammer out a treaty to control plastics production and pollution, participating nations’ desired outcomes run the gamut — and plastics industry organizations are keeping a close eye on the proceedings.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is sponsoring a meeting from May 29 to June 2 at the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) headquarters in Paris to resume negotiations stemming from last year’s UN mandate for a Global Plastics Treaty. This will be the second (INC-2) of five sessions by the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to address plastics pollution. The first meeting was held in Uruguay near the end of last year; the last scheduled meeting is to be held in December 2024.

Delegates from 175 nations will join representatives of the petrochemical industry and environmental groups to develop an internationally binding agreement on plastics strictures. Since the United Nations Environment Assembly in March 2022 endorsed creation of the world’s first plastics treaty, environmental advocates like Break Free From Plastic (BFFP) have urged that the final accord address a number of issues — going as far as capping and dramatically reducing virgin plastic production to banning toxic chemicals in virgin and recycled plastics.

Two weeks prior to INC-2, UNEP issued a report claiming countries can reduce plastic pollution by 80% by 2040 through existing technologies and major policy changes.

National perspectives on a global plastics treaty

With a nonbinding deadline to create an enforceable treaty by 2025, parties to the negotiation process have distinctly varying perspectives.

As the world’s largest source of plastics, China urged in a written response to the INC Plastic Pollution Secretariat that “the international community should take necessary measures to reduce the leakage of plastic waste to the environment, with the aim to protect human health and the environment from (the) adverse impact of plastic pollution. … Therefore, when formulating the objective of the instrument,  the significant role and contribution of plastics to human society and economy should not be neglected, and plastics should be put in the whole socio-economic system to consider the synergy between economy, society, and environment. The instrument should aim at jointly building a sustainable future.”

Meanwhile, the opening treaty proposal from the United States — which seeks to leave regulation largely up to individual nations — has been called “low ambition” and “underwhelming” by critics. In fact, Greenpeace USA Oceans Campaign Director John Hocevar said the United States is more closely aligned with Russia and Saudi Arabia than with the European Union, according to a report in April.

“The U.S. currently supports voluntary ‘national action plans’ that will let individual countries decide how to reduce the amount of plastic they are producing and using,” wrote Lisa Ramsden, a senior oceans campaigner at Greenpeace USA. “We need the Biden administration to listen to the people — not the big consumer brands nor the petrochemical industry — and to support an ambitious, binding plastics treaty,” she said in a March 16 article.

Among nations arguing for far broader and stricter measures, the United Kingdom urged that “a high-level objective enable a broad scope for the ILBI (International Legally Binding Instrument) and include the whole lifecycle of plastics, from the production and design of plastics to their use, consumption, and disposal. This will enable the ILBI to address all sources of plastic pollution, covering materials, products, chemicals, additives, and microplastics, recognizing the risk of plastic pollution to human health.”

More pointedly, the Pacific island nation of Palau said of plastic pollution: “Turn it off at the tap: Develop a strong foundation to end plastic pollution by stopping the production of single-use and unnecessary plastics.”

Plastics industry eager to collaborate

Watching keenly as the varying viewpoints are reconciled, plastics industry insiders have been supportive and eager to collaborate in the process.

For instance, the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) “supports international efforts to promote the elimination of plastic waste from the environment,” a spokesperson said. “We welcome the opportunity to participate in the global discussions taking place in Paris, and hope to add to the collaborative contributions of the negotiations.”

Emphasizing that plastic is “essential to the health, safety, protection, and well-being of humanity,” PLASTICS said it hopes to achieve “a more global, circular economy, whose priorities include a safe and waste-free environment, through the establishment of a collaborative and inclusive approach to negotiations at the UN Environmental Assembly.” The organization is advocating for the United States and other countries to hammer out a “supportable agreement” that:

  • Acknowledges the essential nature of plastics and its global role in providing health, safety, protection, and well-being to humanity in a modern, sustainable world;

  • supports country-led plans to achieve consensus outcomes over indiscriminate policy implementation that fails to acknowledge the unique and specific contexts each country experiences;

  • avoids production caps or similar restrictions that will not reduce material use or consumption but, rather, will encourage the substitution to alternative materials with worse environmental impacts;

  • considers the important role every part of society will need to play in supporting and achieving the goal of eliminating plastic waste in the environment.

Meanwhile, the American Chemical Council (ACC) is part of the International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA) group, The Global Partners for Plastics Circularity. “We’re a global affiliation of companies that make, use, and recycle plastics,” the group’s website asserts. “We are advocating a global agreement to help enable a sustainable, circular economy for plastics. These modern plastic materials are used around the world to create essential and often life-saving products, many of which are critical to a lower carbon, more sustainable future.”

The ACC and other ICCA organizations specify that the key elements of a global agreement to “help end additional plastic pollution and accelerate a circular economy for plastics” should “incentivize actions by all stakeholders, include specific global measures supporting effective implementation, foster multistakeholder participation in financing, and enable flexibility for national action plans while holding countries accountable. We believe measures to address the problem of plastic pollution are most efficient when based on a plastics application approach.” More specifically, the group advocates for:

  • Global measures and actions;

  • progress reports;

  • public-private partnerships;

  • guidance;

  • capacity building;

  • pellet containment.

The Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) is participating in INC-2 as an accredited organization. APR Chief Policy Officer Kate Bailey is scheduled to serve on several panels at side events focused on galvanizing global action and promoting environmentally sound management of plastic waste. APR members are also attending the event and are engaged in numerous dialogues to drive change and advance recycling as a critical and accessible strategy to reduce plastic waste, the APR told PlasticsToday. "The simple truth is that we are successfully recycling plastic in the United States — more than 5 billion pounds in the last year — and we know what is needed to increase and improve plastic recycling," said the association. "The treaty negotiations are a watershed moment for advancing policies and unlocking investments to further increase the circularity of plastic. By recycling more, we can all use less.”

What to watch for in Paris negotiations

Activist organization BFFP expects INC-2 to “likely result in the call for production of a zero draft of the treaty, which would serve as the initial treaty text that governments would use as a starting point for negotiations at INC-3." BFFP members can look for the following additional outcomes and discussions at INC-2, according to the group:

  • A process for authoring the zero draft that is not led by the UNEP Secretariat;

  • a High Ambition Coalition member-driven plan for intersessional work ahead of INC-3 — including on upstream elements of the treaty — that is transparent and open to the public;

  • a definition of “plastic pollution” inclusive of emissions across the full plastics production and supply chain;

  • no final adoption of the Draft Rules of Procedure unless they allow for voting in the INC process (as opposed to consensus).

Jyoti Mathur-Filipp, executive secretary of the Secretariat of the INC on Plastic Pollution, noted in a May 12 letter that “I commit to produce substantive meeting reports from INC-2 onwards, which will reflect the substantive discussions that take place and inform future negotiations. I wish to highlight that all statements made at INC-1 and submitted to the secretariat have been made available online on the event page of that session, and I will continue with this transparency practice for future sessions.” Furthermore, “names of representatives of stakeholders will be made available in the list of participants that the secretariat is preparing for INC-2, and I plan to continue with this practice.”

The letter, directed at the signatory organizations of the Open Letter to the Executive Director of UNEP and Executive Secretary of the INC on Plastic Pollution, also stated that “all plenary sessions are held in public in accordance with the draft rules of procedure provisionally applied and will be broadcast live on YouTube in six languages.”

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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