Playing ‘Petropolitics’: What can we expect from this month’s global Plastics Treaty negotiations?

Image: UNEP

The UN Environment Programme has been bringing nations together to develop a binding global commitment to reduce and ultimately end plastic pollution for several years.

The broad terms of the commitment, often likened to the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, were agreed upon in 2022. A first full draft was then finalised in September 2023 and UNEP staff are hoping to have a finalised version ratified before this calendar year finishes.

Given that the last round of negotiations in November 2023 resulted in “more questions than answers” according to several observers from environmental NGOs, time is running out to deliver a strong outcome – a task that will fall on a new chair for the negotiations, Ecuadorian environment ambassador Luis Vayas Valdivieso.

This change could serve to reinvigorate collaborative efforts but there is no guarantee of this.

The current zero draft includes a veritable menu of options for countries, with an array of choices to be made including:

  • Whether the Treaty should include any bans on plastics considered the most harmful
  • Whether the Treaty should include any bans on plastics regarded as the easiest to eliminate
  • Whether targets should be time-bound, numerical and the same for all nations

The Environmental Investigation Agency has warned that the “road to a strong outcome” at the talks from 23-29 April is “likely paved towards a weak treaty that bows to the interests of plastic-producing nations”.

More than 60 nations and regions are participating in a High-Ambition Coalition for the negotiations, jointly chaired by Rwanda and Norway. The Coalition has the backing of major economies including the UK, the EU and Japan, but has faced opposition from nations with large plastic manufacturing and export bases such as  China and the US.

A similar split has been observed in the private sector. Many consumer goods brands and retailers have been advocating for a strong outcome, while a minority have pushed back. In chemicals and fossil fuels, the approach has generally been one of obstructing progress and weakening key wording.

Widespread public support

New Ipsos polling commissioned by WWF and the Plastic Free Foundation has this week shown that negotiators and businesses advocating for a weaker agreement are not following the wishes of the general public.

Of the 24,000+ people surveyed, who span across 32 countries, 90% said they would support an outright ban on certain kinds of plastics which include chemicals that pose risks to human health. And 85% said they would support a ban on single-use plastics.

WWF estimates that single-use plastic items account for around 60% of virgin plastic production annually, so bans would almost certainly lead to a reduction in absolute virgin plastic production levels.

There was a much butting of heads prior to the terms of the Treaty being agreed in 2022 on whether it should reduce plastic production, or simply focus on waste management at the end-of-life. Ultimately, the former approach won over, with many nations raising concerns around the practicalities of scaling recycling and the potential for plastic pollution and related environmental and health impacts in the upstream value chain.

That said, nations could still agree on a Treaty that leaves it up to individual nations to choose their own targets to limit virgin plastic production and to stipulate what alternatives are acceptable.

WWF US’s head of plastic waste and business Erin Simon said: “As negotiators get to work on the next round of treaty talks, equipped with these survey results, the only path forward is one where countries agree to finally put an end to the visible and invisible impacts of plastic pollution. Now is the time for a legally binding treaty that delivers both what the people want, and what the planet desperately needs.”

Plastic Overshoot

EA Earth Action has released new data this week confirming that the world is still producing far more plastics each year than it has the capacity to technically recycle or otherwise properly manange.

By 5 September this year, plastic production at a global scale will have exceeded the global waste management capacity.

But for many nations, the date will have come much sooner. Plastic Overshoot day has either already happened, or will by the end of April, for nations representing almost 50% of the world’s population.

Nations with a particularly stark gap between plastic production and management capacity include Kuwait, Nigeria, Pakistan, Egypt, the UAE, Iran, India and Russia. And those likely to mismanage plastics at the greatest scale are China, the USA, India, Brazil and Mexico.

EA Earth Action estimates that the average person generates 32.6kg of plastic waste each year. The figure is far higher in nations such as Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, the USA, Malta, Iceland and Israel.

The NGO is advocating for “extensive and ambitious interventions from global governments and corporations” at the next Plastic Treaty negotiations, lest a weak text be agreed that ultimately enables global plastic production and waste to keep growing.

It acknowledges that each nation will need to implement different kinds of policies based on factors such as existing policy baselines, waste production levels on an absolute and per-capita basis and plastic production levels.

More action is also needed from businesses to move ahead of legislation and regulation, beyond the level of uptake seen to date.

Corporate sustainability disclosure platform CDP recently released the results of its first year of asking businesses to post their plastics-related data, revealing that more than half (58%) have not yet mapped all plastic production and use in their value chains and almost 80% have not yet measured risks linked to plastics-related activities.

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