The Next Economy
New UN Global Treaty Seeks to Break the ‘Plastic Wave’

We can cut annual flow of plastic into the ocean by 80% in the next 20 years. The technology and will is there, but one important piece of the puzzle is missing — and the UN is hopeful they can pull it together.

Eleven million metric tonnes of plastic waste enters the ocean every year — a dump truck load per minute. According to a 2020 Pew/SYSTEMIQ report, Breaking the Plastic Wave, business as usual will triple the annual flow of plastic into the ocean by 2040, quadrupling current-day ocean plastic stocks.

We can cut annual flow of plastic into the ocean by 80 percent in the next 20 years. The technology and will is there, but one important piece of the puzzle is missing …

The need for a global plastic treaty

Despite being a problem of global proportions, no universal treaty on addressing plastic pollution exists. Standards and regulations vary by region, country, state, and even municipality. Conventional wisdom viewed plastic as a materials issue — and therefore, a waste issue. Then came Jenna Jambeck's pivotal 2015 exposé on plastics, showcasing that waste management alone won't make a negligible dent in curbing the plastic crisis.

Since 2015, various reactions from governments, companies, organizations and the public coalesced around addressing the entire plastics value chain. It's only recently that this momentum has reached a critical mass — with thousands of businesses, hundreds of countries, and millions of individuals agreeing that a global treaty must unify momentum under one banner.

The pressure consumers have put on brands — along with education and nudging from activists — galvanized meaningful action on part of companies, even those whose bottom lines stand to suffer from a plastic treaty. More than 90 leading businesses and financial institutions have called for a legally binding treaty on plastic pollution. And PepsiCo, Starbucks and Unilever have issued a joint statement calling for mandated global rules for plastic, as well as reduction in virgin plastic production.

“The momentum around this issue has already triggered actions across all stakeholder groups,” said Erin Simon, Head of Plastic Waste + Business at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). “What we are looking for is a global treaty to continue to unify us around how we tackle this issue.”

The world now understands how to slow the cogs and wheels of endless plastic growth, Simon said, and divert the plastic-producing capital towards more circular solutions.

All of the pieces for a redemptive circular economy exist now; they just need to fall in the right place. A global plastic treaty will ensure they do.

A tale of two treaties

Next week, the fifth UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2) meets in Nairobi to strengthen international cooperation against the triple threats of climate change, nature loss and pollution. Topping the agenda is an aspiring international plastic treaty that, if ratified, will be the first of its kind. Three plastic resolutions have been proposed, with two frontrunners taking center stage.

One mandate – proposed by Rwanda and Peru with co-sponsoring from 54 member states and the EU – seeks to create a legally binding global plastic treaty addressing the entire lifecycle of plastic in both terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

The other mandate – proposed by Japan and co-sponsored by four member states – focuses on marine plastic pollution with an emphasis on downstream interventions.

An intergovernmental negotiating committee will be established to further flesh out the nuts and bolts of whichever resolution is adopted. A detailed analysis of the two treaties can be read here.

Generally speaking, the petrochemical sector wants a treaty focusing on waste management. Environmental organizations favor one that regulates the whole plastic value chain and a regulatory device similar to the Montreal Protocol. A full lifecycle approach proposed by the Rwanda-Peru treaty will have greater implications for businesses, and member countries indicate they favor this approach over Japan’s proposal.

The road to a plastics treaty is paved with dialogue and lessons learned from past international treaties. One platform of global dialogue allowing a wide spectrum of opinion and debate is the Ocean Plastics Leadership Network (OPLN).

OPLN brokers multi-stakeholder discussions on the issue of plastic. The organization has 140 members — including NGOs and businesses such as Dow, P&G, Greenpeace, Coca-Cola, Unilever, WWF and more. OPLN has initiated discussions on a plastic treaty in seven countries, with a goal of expanding to 50 after UNEA-5.2.

OPLN focuses on inclusion, capacity and — most importantly — speed.

“We don’t have any time,” said OPLN founder Dave Ford. “We need a treaty five years ago.”

Breaking the Plastic Wave gives the world about five years to address the plastic crisis — a timeline dwarfed by the slow-moving, bureaucratic nature of global politics.

Nonetheless, both Ford and Simon are hopeful the world can get it right at UNEA-5.2. Everyone wants a different system for how the world produces, consumes and reclaims plastic. Taking on the challenge of single-use plastics has virtually unanimous agreement across all sectors; and there's enough cross-sectoral momentum that a new plastic paradigm is likely to emerge from UNEA-5.2.

What to expect from a global plastic treaty

The fact that companies are lobbying for extended producer responsibility and the American Chemistry Council supports at least some form of treaty indicates the market is ready for a bold, unifying move on homogenized circularity. Though corporations and countries differ in nuances, there is multi-sector agreement that a treaty is necessary; and the majority of UN member countries indicate support for a treaty covering both upstream and downstream plastic activities.

This makes Simon hopeful that meaningful progress will be made at UNEA-5.2.

“If you start to align on understanding what we're all trying to drive for those outcomes – even if you don't align on all the strategies and tactics – it definitely sets us up for a better conversation and more progress,” she said.

Ford expects to see at least homogenized standards, language and reporting come out of Nairobi — giving the world common language for how it talks about plastic.

“We need to all be speaking the same language in every corner of the earth about this complicated, chaotic issue,” he said. “Right now, we don't even have a unified global reporting body about how much waste is out there.”

Unified language will likely affect global operations and supply chains, Ford said — as well as potentially level the playing field between companies and countries that have made voluntary commitments, with those that haven't. He also expects a treaty will make it a lot easier for companies to meet their science-based waste-reduction targets.

A treaty that adopts universal language and slows the expansion of problematic and unnecessary plastic production will be a tougher sell to some, and naturally has farther reaching implications.

“That's where the heels are really dug in,” Ford said. “Is this going to be an upstream treaty, a downstream treaty, or both? That's where we're going to land.”

Creating a global plastics agreement will require uniform recycling standards that produce consistent feedstocks for an effective circular economy. Right now, brands must contend with 193 countries, each with different approaches to plastic. This is no small hurdle for brands to navigate — and a global treaty, Ford thinks, will be a great business case for global brands.

“I think that's a huge reason why so many of the global CPG companies in our network are behind this,” he said.

Uniform standards will also be a huge incentive for regional and international trade, Simon said. A plastic treaty is what's needed to create a stable platform for companies to use their supply chain-building acumen to craft a robust market for circular materials — a market that doesn’t currently exist at the needed scale.

“I'm hopeful,” she said. “We've seen so much happen in such a short period of time … We have all of the right people at the table, and we're heading in the same direction.”

UNEA-5 begins Monday and will conclude March 2.

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