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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Will a Global Plastics Treaty Effectively Curb Plastic Pollution?

Not at this rate: In one corner, industry bodies and petrochemical companies call for enhanced recycling and the increased use of materials with recycled content. In the other, climate campaigners continue to push for cuts in production — an argument that won’t be resolved anytime soon.

All eyes were on Ottawa this week as national environmental negotiators descended on the Canadian city for the latest round of talks on UN Global Plastics Treaty — a crucial agreement that if ratified could seriously reduce virgin plastics production, enhance waste management, and get rid of the materials that pose the most risk to the environment and public health globally.

So, what happened during the week-long fourth meeting of the UNEP committee on plastic pollution (INC-4)? As WWF was quick to point out in its wrap-up press release, some 15 million tonnes of plastics had leaked into the ocean since the start of the negotiations.

While some countries advocated for a strong, legally binding treaty, compromise was very much the order of the day. The good news is that the text was advanced and there is at least an agreement to carry out more intersessional work ahead of INC-5. Proposals to define and avoid problematic and high-leakage plastics were also warmly welcomed.

However, as with so many of the UN meetings on climate change, steady, incremental progress was made — but there is more to be done. As WWF head of plastic waste and business Erin Simon said, “The pressure was on at INC-4 for countries to make up for lost time. This was really make or break.”

Speaking at a webinar organised by Innovation Forum this week, she said that Member States turned up with a “different, more collaborative energy. We saw them acting in good faith to the process, which means they were negotiating and trying. That political will that we are so desperate for showed up.”

To recap, the first full draft of the treaty was finished last September, and nations held more negotiations as to what would — and wouldn’t — be included in the final text during INC-3 held in Kenya in November.

During this latest meeting, nations finally began to cement the exact text of the treaty. The conversations centered on topics such as chemicals of concern, product design and primary plastic polymers. There was also a focus on what to do with plastics at end of life. One of the few issues that the majority of nations could agree on was the need for a consistent, global extended producer responsibility (EPR) system — whereby brands are asked to pay for the plastic packaging they place on the market.

Recycling versus production

But nations continued to argue about the specific wording of the text — particularly, concerning the potential curbing of plastic production (as opposed to simply ensuring that more plastic waste is recycled and reused). This was unsurprising given the pressure exerted by petrochemical companies at the heart of the plastics sector. According to analysis by the Center for International Environmental Law, 197 fossil-fuel and chemical-industry lobbyists signed up to attend INC-4 — a 37 percent increase on the previous round of discussions.

Countries such as the US, one of the biggest producers of oil and gas, have been accused of skirting the issue — promising to cut the demand for plastic rather than reducing overall production. But as Julie Teel Simmonds — a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity who attended INC-4 — pointed out, rather than showing leadership, the US “has remained disappointedly in the middle.” The US position at the talks didn’t go beyond existing US policy, “which has failed to curb plastic production or protect frontline communities and the environment from harm,” she added.

Watching from the side-lines in Ottawa, the Scientists’ Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty raised concerns that the draft treaty focuses too heavily on recycling and not enough on reducing virgin plastic. According to the organisation, it’s going to be really hard for recycling to keep pace with plastic production — which doubled between 2000 and 2019. In a statement, it said that even if plastics production is reduced between 1-3 percent a year, “global plastic pollution will continue its upward trend as cumulative production reaches at least 20,000 million metric tonnes of plastic by 2040.”

So, what does all this mean for brands?

Speaking at the Innovation Forum webinar, Patrick Shewell — head of global packaging sustainability at Mondelēz International — said he was buoyed by some of what he heard coming out of Ottawa: “The commitment to conduct intersessional formal work is unprecedented. And it’s critical to driving consensus around areas where we agree that we want to focus and we want to further strengthen the legal language within the treaty.

“We’re all really pushing for a legally binding, global instrument that sets common global rules instead of pushing this down to individual countries and relying on national efforts — because that’s what’s driving a lot of the issues that we struggle with along the plastics value chain today,” he said. The “disconnected patchwork” of mandatory and voluntary schemes is not proving effective in driving systems change at a global level to end plastics pollution, he added.

Nestlé’s global public affairs lead for packaging and sustainability, Jodie Roussell, agreed. The company works in 188 countries, where there are currently 79 different national EPR systems in place. With “tremendous differences between the systems,” Nestlé has been actively working within the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty to give its feedback on the EPR examples that work well — versus others “that don’t deliver on the objectives to ensure collection, processing and ultimately recycling of material.”

As the negotiations continue, there is a clear division: In one corner, industry bodies and petrochemical companies will call for enhanced recycling and the increased use of materials with recycled content. In the other, climate campaigners will continue to push for cuts in production. It’s an argument that won’t be resolved anytime soon. And a compromise will need to be found if the world is to finally get a plastics treaty at the final round of negotiations in Korea in November.

Eirik Lindebjerg, WWF International’s global plastics policy lead, summed it up: “Will we get the strong treaty with common, global rules that most of the world is calling for — or will we end up with a voluntary, watered-down agreement led by least-common-denominator values?”