From single-use bans to new taxes: How should businesses prepare for the UN’s Plastic Treaty?
After heated debates in Paris and ahead of the next round of talks in Nairobi, edie asks the experts how businesses should prepare for the implementation of the world’s first UN-led treaty aimed at ending plastic pollution.
Earlier this summer, environmental negotiators convened in Paris for talks to add more detail to the Treaty. A final version should be agreed on in 2024, after nations compromised last year on the inclusion of all parts of the plastic life-cycle. In other words, plastic production will also need to decrease at the source.
The Paris meeting in June ended in a pledge to produce an initial, full draft of the treaty ahead of the next round of talks in Nairobi this November.
Ignacio Gavilan, the outgoing director of sustainability at the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), tells edie that he expects the draft to come before the eve of the Nairobi meeting, as the organisers at the UN will want to lay the groundwork for “meaningful discussions”.
He says: “There cannot be silence between now and November. There has to be something to react to.”
Plenty of time to consider a full draft, he explains, could help smooth the proceedings along, given that they are lengthy by nature. As at UN climate summits, all nations are given a chance to present to the room, and talks can go on for hours about the specific wording of not only final texts but initial housekeeping notes on proceedings.
In Paris, Gavilan reflects, “substantive discussions were held up until day three” as attendees bickered over procedural rules. This not only wastes time but can create an atmosphere where delay tactics can thrive and where frustration and distrust thrive.
There is time to put this right ahead of Nairobi, Gavilan says – but there are several key points of clarity that the private sector are seeking.
Mandatory or voluntary?
Chief among the remaining confusions are some basic governance points.
“There remains significant uncertainty as to what the draft will look like come the autumn,” Common Seas’ chief executive Jo Royle summarises.
How will voting on the Treaty work – could one country veto the whole thing? This could be problematic given the opposition of China, India, Brazil, and Russia to much of the wording at present.
Will the Treaty outline global, time-bound numerical targets or will nations be able to set their own? Will it be mandatory for nations to reach these targets and, if so, what is the penalty for missing them?
Common Seas and hundreds of other NGOs, with the support of 135 nations, are pressing for targets to be binding and reporting towards them mandatory. Royle notes: “Impactful change begins with measurement. After all, we cannot manage what we cannot measure.”
Binding targets would also leave no wiggle room for nations or industries presently advocating delay or arguing that market forces will fix the problem, highlights Tru Earth’s ESG director Anita Spiller.
“I’m sure most businesses are itching to know if this treaty will be globally mandated or take a more voluntary approach that the US and other big plastic-producing countries are backing. Sustainability advocates like myself are hoping for a global response that moves from consensus to mandate.
“Plastic waste is a global crisis that deserves our collective attention and effort.”
Should there be binding targets, South Pole’s director of the circular economy Lucas Hoex argues, there should also be information on how businesses should disclose their plastics impacts. This framework should encourage businesses to invest in circular solutions locally rather than shipping their plastic waste across the world, often to markets where recycling infrastructure cannot cope.
“We hope for guidance on how companies can, or should, financially contribute to this regional waste management infrastructure development,” Hoex says. “Today, there is very little clarity on this – and a Treaty can help.”
Bans and taxes
To meet potentially binding targets to reduce plastic production and pollution, a range of interventions have been floated by the UN.
The Treaty is likely to include new plans to phase out some of the most high-risk single-use plastic packaging formats in terms of human health and impact when in nature. As the CGF’s Gavilan notes, many nations and companies have already begun taking these steps without the Treaty.
In edie’s home in the UK, certain formats of polystyrene food packaging will be banned next year, as will plastic cutlery. Some other markets have outright bans on things including PVC food packaging and single-use carrier bags.
Another intervention that would reduce plastic at the source would be a target on reusables. This is in the works, but there is still not much clarity on which packaging formats will be affected. Gavilan argues that a target would work well for beverage packaging, for example, but not so much for the pre-packed snacks we consume on the go.
Even as plastic pollution slows, with a focus on short-lived and highly polluting items first, there will need to be a scaling of waste management infrastructure to both improve recycling rates and reduce littering rates.
It is estimated that around half of the global population lives in places unable to manage the amount of plastic pollution generated locally. Sadly, many of these places are often saddled with exports, too, leading to further leakage into the environment.
Gavilan says there is consensus that it is “sensible” and “right” for plastic producers to pay for recycling systems in part, rather than leaving it all to the public purse.
There may be an agreement in the Treaty on international finance addressing the social injustices of plastic pollution, as there is on climate.
But it will be up to nations to assess and implement effective domestic mechanisms to tax producers to fund recycling. The CGF has published a briefing making recommendations for effective Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes and hopes to see this referenced. Other organisations offering policy tools to the UN for the Treaty include WWF and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
New discussion formats
Business has historically been the bad guy when it comes to plastic pollution. And some businesses are still against virtually all bans and taxes despite the UN’s estimates that properly addressing plastic pollution could save $4.5bn in costs by 2030.
Ahead of Treaty meetings in 2022, bans were reportedly opposed by industry bodies representing large fossil fuel and petrochemical companies.
In contrast, the users of plastics for things like building materials and consumer goods packaging advocated vocally for a strong Treaty. Seeing names like Coca-Cola pop up on open letters advocating for higher ambitions came as a surprise to many.
Gavilan says it is “too late” for petrochemicals and fossil firms to change the basics of the Treaty – it is set in stone that plastic production will need to decrease.
He and his team are now advocating for more meaningful dialogue that could move the dial for positive impact, including specific time for not-for-profits to address country negotiators. This could prevent “thousands of meetings on the sidelines” which can complicate the process.
He also believes in more meaningful dialogue within the private sector.
“We don’t want the private sector to be seen as one black hole of evil companies that pollute the world.
“Petrochems have much more cash and knowledge when it comes to scaling collection and processing, which is something we already agree on.
“We want to stand next to Exxon and make them listen and support optimal EPR, bans on certain products, reuse targets.”
Common Seas’ Jo Royle makes a similar point. She says: “The international community must show real leadership in setting high standards for businesses to follow. But good businesses have the potential to spearhead progress by leading by example. To stay ahead, businesses must employ effective tools to foster transparency, measure their plastic usage and implement rapid reduction targets.”
In a nutshell: some savvy businesses are already preparing for the strictest Treaty possible. Much more clarity come November will hopefully enable others to follow suit.