May 25, 2024

Negotiators wrapped up the fourth round of formal discussions on the United Nations’ global plastics treaty early Tuesday morning, moving closer to a final agreement intended to “end plastic pollution.”

Delegates made important progress on the treaty, the final version of which is due by the end of the year. They cut a long draft of the text and agreed on a formal agenda for “intersessional work” ahead of the next — and final — meeting, in Busan, South Korea, scheduled for Nov. 25. That work will involve critical issues around funding the treaty’s provisions and identifying plastic-related chemicals that should be restricted.

However, the agenda does not mention the elephant in the room: whether and how the treaty will limit plastic production.

“Nothing happened that was particularly surprising, but this outcome is still pretty demoralizing,” said Chris Dixon, a marine campaign leader for the environmental research nonprofit who attended the talks. Other groups called the outcomedisappointing” and said the negotiations were “undermined by entrenched industry influence.”

Dixon and other environmental advocates have the in three meetings fight for a treaty that addresses the “full life cycle” of plastics – meaning one that goes beyond waste management to limit the amount of plastic made in the first place.

The world already produces more than 400 million metric tons of plastic per year, and fossil fuel companies plan to increase that number dramatically over the next few decades. Plastic has been described as the fossil fuel industry’s “plan B” as the world turns away from the use of oil and gas in transportation and electricity generation. This could have dire implications, not just for plastic pollution, but for the climate; according to s recent studygreenhouse gas emissions from growing plastic production could eat up one fifth of the world’s remaining carbon budget by 2050.

However, just because production limits are not on the agenda for ad hoc working groups does not mean that they are outside the treaty; it just means that delegates arrive in Busan less prepared to discuss technical concepts related to plastics manufacturing. Language about the “full life cycle” of plastics is still in the treaty’s mandate – which countries agreed upon in 2022 — and throughout the draft text. Countries can also host informal discussions on the topic between now and November.

There is already widespread support for addressing plastic production in the treaty. Dozens of countries have a statement presented by Rwanda and Peru last week which says that a global plastic reduction target should be “a North Star” for the treaty. The paper proposed cutting production by 40 percent below 2025 levels by 2040. Another statement, published Monday and signed by 28 countries, called for the treaty “achieve sustainable levels of production of primary plastic polymers.”

Greenpeace banner condemning plastic pollution
Greenpeace activists urged treaty negotiators to place limits on plastic production.
Photo by IISD/ENB – Kiara Worth

Dixon said translating that support into binding treaty text was a matter of “political commitment”. On Monday, production was “the first topic dropped” as delegates scrambled to agree on an agenda for intersessional work, she said. They tried to avoid a repeat of the previous conference, which ended with no agenda whatsoever.

Santos Virgilio, a delegate representing Angola, during a panel Monday that it is “too early to say” how his country and other oil-producing states will be persuaded to accept treaty provisions on plastic production. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar are among the countries most opposed to addressing plastic production as part of the treaty. Plastic industry lobby groups too turned out in full force at the negotiation session to oppose production limits.

Chris Jahn, Board Secretary of the International Council of Chemical Societies, said in a statement Monday that the industry is “fully committed to a legally binding agreement that all countries can join that ends plastic pollution without eliminating the massive social benefits that plastics provide for a healthier and more sustainable world.”

Industry groups used the event as a public relations event and touted the benefits of plastic in advertisements posted across Ottawa. In a hotel, one collection of ads said plastic “saves lives”, “yields water” and “reduces food waste.”

The United States has also resisted plastic production limits as part of the treaty. An official of the State Department told the Financial Times on Tuesday that “overly prescriptive approaches” could alienate “major producers or consumers of plastics”. Instead of reducing the supply of plastic, the US wants to focus on reducing demand and improving infrastructure for recycling and reuse.

Despite frustrations, several observers noted a promising shift in tone at this week’s negotiating session compared to the previous meeting. “There was a different energy, it was more collaborative,” said Erin Simon, the vice president and head of plastic waste and business for the environmental nonprofit WWF. Bjorn Beeler, the general manager and international coordinator for the non-profit organization International Pollutants Elimination Network, said it was “very significant” that the delegates were able to 70 page “zero draft” of the treaty – a laundry list of options meant to represent everyone’s views – to a more formal version vetted by negotiators.

Ads say plastic "save lives" and "deliver water."
Pro-plastic ads at an Ottawa hotel.
Photo by IISD/ENB – Kiara Worth

All of the most ambitious provisions of the treaty are still in the newly updated draft, Beeler said, meaning they are still up for discussion. He also noted growing support for health-related aspects of the treaty, particularly a provision to limit potentially hazardous chemicals commonly added to plastics. Delegates agreed to create an expert group to focus on this topic during intersessional work. They tasked it with proposing a framework to identify the most problematic types of plastics and plastic-related chemicals, as well as product designs that increase plastic products’ recycling and reuse potential.

Although countries disagree on whether certain substances should be banned or restricted, and what criteria should be used to identify such substances, there is more convergence on the regulation of chemicals than on most other issues. Even Iraq, a major oil producer, has a statement supports the creation of two lists of banned and restricted plastic chemicals.

“Everybody knows there are dangerous chemicals in plastic,” Beeler said. Griffins Ochieng, the executive director of the Kenya-based Center for Environmental Justice and Development, said in a statement that a global plastics treaty addressing chemicals in plastics “is an impetus to eradicate plastic pollution.”

Another expert group will focus on finance — where to get funding to help developing countries move away from single-use plastics and testing plastics for dangerous chemicals, among other treaty goals, and how to distribute that money. Some countries and many environmental groups support the creation of a dedicated fund to help poor countries implement the provisions of the plastics treaty. Others say it would be easier to use an existing mechanism like that Global Environment Facilitya multilateral fund that provides grants to support government projects.

With eight months left in 2024, delegates have a lot of work ahead of them if they want to conclude a treaty by the end of the year, which is the goal countries agreed upon when they decided to write a treaty in March 2022. Even if the treaty does not take its most ambitious form, it could still have a major impact. For example, policies to discourage the use of new plastics – such as requirements for recycled content – are relatively non-controversial, and can indirectly limit plastic production. Beeler said it is also possible that new requirements on the measurement and disclosure of plastic production could eventually lead to production limits after the treaty is ratified.

Simon, with WWF, said she was feeling cautiously hopeful following this week’s meeting. The conference was “not a failure, and certainly not a victory.” she said. “But this is progress.”

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