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Who’s Afraid of a Global Plastic Treaty?

A global plastic treaty is certain to be on the table at the United Nations Environment Assembly at the end of the month. Should the plastics industry be worried?

Norbert Sparrow

February 11, 2022

5 Min Read
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Image courtesy of Rawpixel Ltd/Alamy

At the end of this month, the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA 5.2) will resume live in Nairobi and online. One of the agenda items, which has been gaining a lot of traction leading up to the gathering, is a global plastic treaty. There is significant interest in a UN treaty, according to Planet Tracker, with 161 countries and some of the world’s largest brand owners and retailers lending support. Largely absent from this list is the plastics industry. That’s a big mistake, writes Helen McGeough, Senior Analyst, Plastics Recycling, at business intelligence firm ICIS. Whether or not you consider the incessant reports on the proliferation of “toxic plastics” to have substance, “the pressure on the plastics industry and call for change will not only continue but intensify at pace,” notes McGeough. She thinks industry should join the party. But what if you’re just not welcome?

Major brands call for legally binding treaty on plastic pollution

In advance of the assembly, scheduled for Feb. 28 to March 2, several converters and materials suppliers, brand owners and retailers, waste management firms, and financial institutions have signed on to a Business Statement for a Legally Binding UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution. It calls for the development of an international, legally binding instrument that:

  • Includes both upstream and downstream policies, aiming to keep plastics in the economy and out of the environment; reduce virgin plastic production and use; and decouple plastic production from the consumption of fossil resources.

  • Sets a clear direction to align governments, businesses, and civil society behind a common understanding of the causes of plastic pollution and a shared approach to address them. For companies and investors, this creates a level playing field and prevents a patchwork of disconnected solutions, while setting the right enabling conditions to make a circular economy work in practice and at scale.

  • Provides a robust governance structure to ensure countries’ participation and compliance, with common definitions as well as harmonized standards applicable to all. This facilitates investments to scale innovations, infrastructures, and skills in the countries and industries most in need of international support.

The more than 70 signatories to the statement include Berry, Borealis, Mondi, P&G, Coca-Cola, Mondelez, Walmart, and many more. But not enough for Planet Tracker. “The single-use plastic (SUP) producers are withholding their support. Borealis, the Austrian joint venture owned by OMV (the listed Austrian oil and gas company) and Mubadala (the UAE sovereign wealth fund), is the only top 20 SUP producer that presently supports this global treaty,” writes Planet Tracker, which describes itself as a non-profit financial think tank aligning capital markets with planetary boundaries.

Industry resistance would be 'socio-politically sensitive'

From McGeough’s perspective, it would be “socio-politically sensitive and challenging” for major oil and chemical firms to resist the call to restrict the growth in production of plastic and reduce virgin plastic consumption from consumers and NGOs. Although she doesn’t call out plastic producers as Planet Tracker does, much of what McGeough says has relevance.

Noting the unprecedented increase in demand for recycled polymers from brand owners and retailers that suppliers struggle to meet, she writes that it “may be tempting to highlight the shortcomings of the recycle supply chain or . . . the premium pricing for recycled polymers . . . to account for any lack in progress toward their recycled content ambitions.” She rightly targets the collection and sorting [of waste plastics] as a “bottleneck to growth in capacities and, therefore, supply.” Design for recycling and technological solutions, such as chemical recycling, can help achieve circularity, but, as concerns the latter, an effective collection and sorting infrastructure remains an indispensable building block.

Plastics are, in fact, sustainable

The plastics industry is not averse to sustainability initiatives and, in fact, has been very supportive. My inbox is filled with news releases every day announcing developments in advanced recycling technologies and materials incorporating ever-higher percentages of recycled content. It’s easy to demonize an industry, as long as you forget that it is made up of people who don’t enjoy the sight of landfills or plastic litter fouling the oceans or roadways any more than the folks at Break Free from Plastics or other activist groups. But they also are concerned about their livelihoods and get frustrated participating in debates with cherry-picked data that ignore some basic scientific facts. One of them is that plastics are environmentally and economically preferable to alternative materials in numerous applications. They reduce food waste by preserving produce and meat longer; enable lightweighting in cars, thus improving fuel efficiency; and make medical procedures safer and more affordable, to name but three.

Tony Radoszewski, President and CEO of the Plastics Industry Association, agrees, stressing that the unique physical attributes of plastics enable us to make products more durable, lighter, and more sustainable. “Those benefits are hindered when plastics are disposed of improperly due to individual or structural failures. We support international cooperation to eliminate plastic leakage into the environment,” Radoszewski told PlasticsToday. “We encourage solutions that are flexible and relevant to regional context and treat the plastics industry as experts and partners,” he added, cautioning against “heavy-handed restrictions that impede the ability of materials to flow around the world, especially in a time of stressed supply chains.” Production or consumption limits on plastics is the wrong approach, said Radoszewski, and encouraging the use of products that are inferior from a performance or sustainability profile results in major economic harm globally. “We look forward to providing our perspective through the process and touting the value of the miracle material that is plastic.”

McGeough concludes her piece by stating that “without an effective unilateral international consistent approach, such as a UN treaty provides, it will be extremely challenging to make progress on tackling and preventing plastic pollution.”

That may be an overstatement — brand owners, retailers, materials suppliers and, yes, the plastics industry have made tremendous progress, and many more innovations are in the pipeline — but I have no animus with setting realistic, achievable goals on a global basis. Formulating those goals without input from the plastics industry, however, will result in an unattainable wish list that frustrates everyone.

That brings us back to the central question of industry’s engagement in such initiatives. I think that would be beneficial for all involved and, in that respect, the position of Planet Tracker and like-minded associations is correct. More plastics producers and processors should be involved in these conversations. But, first, somebody needs to invite them to the party.

About the Author(s)

Norbert Sparrow

Editor in chief of PlasticsToday since 2015, Norbert Sparrow has more than 30 years of editorial experience in business-to-business media. He studied journalism at the Centre Universitaire d'Etudes du Journalisme in Strasbourg, France, where he earned a master's degree.


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