UN Global Plastic Treaty : Are we edging closer to a cliff edge?

Sian Sutherland, Co-Founder, A Plastic Planet & Plastic Health Council reflects on the latest the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3) to develop a legally binding UN Global Plastic Treaty and how they are being influenced by oil nations.

UN Global Plastic Treaty : Are we edging closer to a cliff edge?

Pictured: An exhibit at UNEP headquarters in Nairobi. Image: UNEP / Ahmed Nayim Yussuf 

In November 2023, the third session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3) to develop a legally binding UN Global Plastic Treaty was held in Nairobi, Kenya.  

If you were to take a stroll through the corridors and well-kept gardens of UN Headquarters in Nairobi you may have stumbled upon a lavish, white tent. Not dissimilar to what you may expect to see at any industry expo or political conference, it was a space which you may inhabit when scouring a room for a new business prospect or politely sipping Champagne. 

The long rectangular tent, placed at the back of the main UNEP building, stood alone on a green lawn of manicured grass, and was framed by tropical shrubs. Distinctly separate from the nineties UN complex, it drew intrigue from passers-by as to what was behind those white plastic walls.  

I curiously peered into the space and was greeted with the sight of dark green fabrics, faux golden fixtures, and large screens on each wall with promotional videos on a loop. As my eyes drew into focus, it was unmistakably the home camp of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  

Saudi Arabia, along with Russia, Iran and a handful of others form what is known by many as the ‘low-ambition coalition’. If you haven’t guessed it yet, there is something that binds this coalition, and that is oil.  

Whilst debate has raged through negotiations on the scope of any future plastics treaty, the oil lovers have set out ensure that Big Oil’s Plan B, plastic, is ringfenced with a deal that promotes recycling and reusing plastic this over those who favour a more ambitious Treaty which restricts plastic production. This alongside the mandatory disclosure of plastic data from state and corporation, and crucially places human health at the heart of the Treaty.  

After three rounds of negotiations, such divisions have continued to hamper the efforts of many to progress onto substantive points. An updated draft treaty has subsequently been released just before the New Year. The second draft released on the 28th of December provides a glimmer of hope, with options in the text providing for the elimination of chemicals and polymers that are hazardous to human health. Mandatory disclosure from corporations on plastic pollution another. But whilst building upon the bare bones of the Zero Draft Treaty, the spectre of big oil still hangs over the process. There are swathe of weak options allowing for business as usual, within a draft treaty that will not be progressed until INC 4 in April. This Treaty can still flounder, killed by multiple choice appeasement.  

Fossil fuel and chemical industries registered more lobbyists at plastics treaty talks than 70 countries combined at the latest round of negotiations in Nairobii, the lobbyists sitting side by side with delegations. 143 attendees in the UN building employed by the fossil fuel industry. How has this blatant conflict of interests been allowed?  It should come as no surprise that back door deals aiming to water down a future Treaty are being dealt literally in the back yard of UNEP.  

There has been a distinct lack of ambition from many UN member states throughout the INC process – countries fearful to consider that the world urgently needs the Treaty to set out legally binding starting dates and reduction targets to turn off the plastic tap at source. The low ambition coalition even seem fearful to start to talk about setting targets, instead supporting an Iranian proposal to scrap the UNEP Zero Draft Treaty that acted as a basis for the first rounds of negotiation, which they are argue disregarded the role of plastics in the economy.  

Recycling continues to be held up by the aforementioned ‘low ambition coalition’ has a fix all – “why limit our production and profits when you can just recycle more?”. Because we can’t recycle our way out of this mess. It was never the viable, scalable option. We can no longer ignore the true impact of plastic.  

Globally, 400 million tonnes of plastic are produced every year with 16,000 component chemical ingredients, many of which are associated with endocrine disruption, infertility, heart disease, and cancer.ii  

The potential effect of the thousands of endocrine disrupting chemicals, used in plastic bottles or children’s toys, could mean most couples may have to use assisted reproduction by 2045iii. I cannot think of many better reasons for drastic change than this existential threat.  

The plastic crisis is the biggest human health crisis we are yet to face and still delegates are stuck in a toxic inertia, negotiating how to negotiate when there is a plethora of Treaty elements that must be outlined – production limits, financing mechanisms, scaling waste management and of course, safe chemistry and human health.  

In response to this dirge of ambition, in Nairobi leading global scientists revealed an alternative Treaty for delegates to adopt, one that places health at the heart of any legally binding agreement. The Zero Draft Treaty, the basis of negotiations revealed prior to INC 3, fell short of providing provisions to protect the health of future generations.  

Those laid out in the Health Scientists’ Global Plastics Treaty are ambitious – some may consider them unreasonable. But it is not the role of scientists to be popular. It is not the role of science to be “reasonable”. It is the responsibility of scientists to be truthful; to tell us the proven facts. The 20 leading scientists including Dr Pete Myers, Carnegie Mellon University and Prof Dr Dick Vertaak, VU University Amsterdam, agree that an impactful treaty must “reduce the production volumes of plastics”, “eradicate all but verifiably essential single-use plastic items”, “mandate proper testing of all chemicals in plastics”, and “prohibit ‘the toxic chemical recycling’ of plastic”.  

The Global Plastics Treaty is a once-in-a-century opportunity to protect human health from toxic polluting plastic. World leaders cannot afford to leave their populations vulnerable to the toxic effects of plastic. In April 2024, INC 4 will take place in Ottawa, this penultimate session in a process that has delivered little to quell the anxieties of many that the process could be a fatal missed opportunity. It is now the role of delegates to step up to their highest levels of responsibility. They have one choice here – to create a Treaty that protects the profits of the fossil fuel industry, or to create a Treaty that protects the health of their people.  History will judge them; our children will judge them. Can they resist those lobbying for the already rich, or act for the 8 billion who will suffer the consequences. 

Comments (1)

  1. N Rumble says:

    Whilst “specific attribution” of plastic waste may be impossible surely the legacy and some sort proportionate penalty of.the biggest consumers of plastic packaging should also be under discussion?

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