Navigating the Global Plastics Treaty negotiations: What should businesses focus on?

Image: UNEP

A study last year found that without a “concerted” international effort, the level of plastics seeping into the environment each year could double by 2040.

UN Member States are developing a Global Plastics Treaty aimed at reducing global plastics production, prioritising materials that pose the greatest risk to the environment and public health, and requiring nations to enhance waste management practices.

The first full draft of the treaty was finalised in September of last year, which was further negotiated in November at the third round of discussions held in Kenya, where a small group of nations rowed over the specific wording on operationalising the treaty and stalled progress due to their strong petrochemical interests.

Last month, the fourth session of the intergovernmental negotiating committee (INC-4) to advance a global plastics treaty took place in Ottawa, and while nations finally began negotiating the exact text line-by-line in the last few days, they failed to nail down the final text.

The final negotiation round is scheduled for this November in Busan, Korea. Carsten Wachholz, co-lead of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty, tells edie that reaching an agreement there could be challenging due to time constraints.

He says: “At Ottawa, we didn’t reach the level of technical negotiations that was required.

“It is difficult with just one round of negotiations left to cut through the draft text and sign if off and get an agreement on how technical questions that would not be answered by then will be handled later in a constructive way.”

While uncertainty persists for the business community until the treaty is finalised, Wachholz emphasises that recent talks have offered clarity on potential solutions to mitigate the plastic crisis and that is where the business community can begin their efforts.

Building blocks for resolving the plastic crisis

So far, the negotiation rounds have focused on the key parts of the treaty including the most problematic and avoidable plastics, chemicals of concern, primary plastic polymers, product design, composition and performance, as well as extended producer responsibility (EPR) and a need for global rules.

At the last round of negotiations, while states had differing opinions on most of these key points, nearly all the states agreed on the importance of a consistent global EPR system as well as a need for global rules.

A recent study found that less than 60 global companies are responsible for more than half of the world’s plastic pollution. The EPR system will place the responsibility for the end-of-life disposal of products and packaging on the manufacturers rather than on local governments or consumers.

The EMF, in collaboration with WWF, launched a Business Coalition for the Plastics Treaty, to enhance confidence in the business community regarding the transition away from plastics. Many of the multinationals acting as packaging producers, brands or retailers are already part of the coalition.

Wachholz tells edie that “the coalition is where it all started”. The brands have been engaged in internal conversations regarding the increase in regional regulatory barriers regarding plastic use.

He says: “The transition requires brands to reduce the production and use of plastics in line with circular economy principals. However, that alone won’t be enough.

“We are going to still use plastics, and so we need to make sure that we are disposing them in a safe way, and that is the conversation businesses need to have with their national governments.”

PepsiCo’s public policy lead, Darci Vetter, stresses that regardless of the treaty’s outcome, the brand’s plastic reduction goals will  remain, mirroring the commitment of other coalition members.

This highlights the imperative for brands to actively collaborate with the governments of their operational countries to ensure local infrastructure, including waste management facilities, is prepared to address the crisis.

Vetter says: “We are working with governments around the world to try and advance EPR systems individually.

“We are also thinking about how we can work pre-competitively and share experiences with others in the industry to create systems that do work well.”

Wachholz stresses the critical need for localised action to tailor responses to each country’s unique circumstances, fostering effectiveness. He advocates for solutions tailored through collaborative dialogue between brands and governments, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach mandated by the treaty.

The call for business-government collaboration

Wachholz says: “At the INC, somehow all countries agree to similar things, but we don’t want the treaty to prescribe what they have to do, we want countries to re-train the economy to make the decisions best for themselves.”

Wachholz suggests that businesses could significantly influence the outcome of the treaty by initiating conversations with their national governments. These discussions could provide valuable insights into the current state of negotiations and enable businesses to contribute their perspectives on how the treaty could complement existing policies.

Furthermore, he underscores that large multinational corporations, operating across multiple nations, possess a unique opportunity to promote alignment through advocacy initiatives within their organisations. This alignment, in turn, could facilitate the establishment of a globally effective system for managing plastic pollution.

Additionally, he highlights that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) engaged with multinational corporations within the same value chain are also expressing interest in the current discussions, which provides an opportunity for larger companies to assist the small businesses in adjusting to evolving regulatory frameworks.

Wachholz adds: “We have seen the ingredients which could act as solutions to the plastic crisis, addressing different stages of the plastics lifecycle.

“The treaty is a starting point. Don’t wait until everything is agreed. You can start now.”

Looking forward, the UN member states have agreed on a plan for formal intersessional work ahead of the final negotiation (INC-5) round in Busan.

These intersessional discussions are expected to focus on some of the most difficult aspects of the treaty, including implementation frameworks, chemicals and problematic products, and specifications regarding product design.

Vetter says: “While how observers will be incorporated in the intersessional work remains to be seen, we will use this as an opportunity to follow the topics that will be discussed very closely, and will do our best to provide technical expertise and preferences.”

Vetter suggests that businesses should closely monitor developments in the negotiation process, emphasising that significant progress can occur between formal negotiation rounds.

“This is an opportunity for businesses to keep advocating their support for the treaty,” she concludes.

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