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U.N. parties are worlds apart on plastics treaty solutions

A wild giant otter with a discarded single-use plastic bottle.

A wild giant otter with a discarded single-use plastic bottle. Image by Paul Williams via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

  • The United Nations Environment Programme will sponsor a Paris meeting in late May and early June in the ongoing effort to create an international treaty to potentially control plastic production and pollution.
  • Delegates from 175 nations, along with private stakeholders (including the petrochemical industry and environmental groups), remain far apart on what the treaty should cover: reuse, banning certain chemicals, limiting plastics production, whether to focus on cradle-to-grave supply chain regulation or mostly on ocean pollution, and much more.
  • Perhaps most importantly, the world’s countries need to determine how the treaty will be implemented: Should the final agreement require mandatory international compliance, or should individual nations be allowed to act voluntarily to solve the plastics problem?
  • China and the United States are taking a far less aggressive position on implementation, recommending a voluntary national approach, while Pacific Island countries and the European Union want to see stricter rules for compliance and more focus on production limits. At this point, no one has any idea what the final treaty document will look like.

In late May, delegates from 175 countries will gather in Paris in the next round of a global effort to save the world from plastic. Observers, representing a coterie of interest groups seeking to influence the process, will also attend.

This five-day second session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution comes a little more than a year after a first agreement was reached in March 2022 by all participating nations to develop a plan to stop plastic contamination of the world’s oceans, lands and air. There’s a non-binding deadline to come up with an enforceable plan by 2025.

With the world awash in toxic plastic waste, and 1 million single-use plastic bottles bought globally every minute, the urgency for reaching a strong agreement is not lost on the U.N. negotiators. But other than the 2025 target date, the world hasn’t agreed to much else.

Nations still need to hash out to what degree the treaty will focus on recycling, reducing disposable single-use plastic products, manufacturing less harmful materials, and much more.

Plastic containers piled up.
Nations still need to hash out to what degree the treaty will focus on recycling, reducing disposable single-use plastic products, manufacturing less harmful materials, creating limits on production, and more. Perhaps the biggest sticking point is whether the agreement should be mandatory or voluntary. Image by Frank van Dongen via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Countries remain especially far apart on what should be required by law and what should be voluntary. Island nations suffering from pollution washed up on their shores want mandatory controls and plastic production limits, while producer nations, such as China and the U.S., are seeking more discretionary action with a recycling focus, rather than cradle-to-grave oversight.

The first session and other meetings over the past year focused on procedural matters. By early April, 67 nations and 175 other “stakeholders” had submitted position papers staking out a wide range of views.

China, for instance — the world’s biggest plastic source, accounting for 32% of global production in 2021 — seeks a focus on “leakage” and “mismanagement of discarded plastic” and wants to temper the treaty by taking into account “the significant role and contribution of plastics to human society and … the whole socioeconomic system [with the final document considering] the synergy between economy, society and environment.” China prefers a more limited treaty that deals primarily with waste collection and recycling, and says that production issues, such as plastic taxes and banning certain additives, should be left up to individual nations.

The Pacific island nation of Palau, on the other hand, says “Turn it off at the tap … by stopping the production of single use and unnecessary plastics.” The policies of reduce, reuse and recycling aren’t doing enough, it says. “As a non-producing country, we are downstream in the plastics lifecycle as we import many products in plastic containers,” Palau’s submission says. “Added to this are the plastics of unknown origins that wash up on our shores daily.”

Plastic bottles on a beach.
As plastics of unknown origin continually wash up on Palau’s shores, the island nation says the policies of reduce, reuse and recycling aren’t doing near enough to solve the problem. Some nations want mandatory limits put on plastics production, a policy resisted by large scale plastics-producing nations such as China and the United States. Image by Brian Yurasits via Unsplash (Public domain).

The European Union suggests some specific implementation actions, such as “target” dates to reduce plastic production, including “national commitments”; the banning of non-recyclable additives that harm human health and the environment; and forbidding or restricting some of the most common products that litter the Earth, such as plastic eating utensils and packaging.

The United States, as with China, proposes leaving regulation largely up to individual nations, seeking a “country-driven instrument” that would be far more voluntary than internationally binding. The U.S. is also a leading plastic producer and a top exporter of plastic trash.

A variety of agencies helped draft the U.S. submission, led by the State Department but also including the departments of commerce, agriculture, and health and human services, plus the Environmental Protection Agency, White House, and others. The 12-page U.S. submission includes eight references to “voluntary approaches,” and one to “voluntary and mutually agreed terms.” It calls for a mix of worldwide and nation-specific measures and says that each nation should develop a plan of some sort, including reporting.

It’s well understood that the most successful environmental treaty of all time, the 1987 Montreal Protocol, relied heavily on the mandatory control of the production of substances that deplete the ozone layer. By comparison, the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, with its voluntary nation-by-nation approach, has so far fallen dangerously short of its carbon emission reduction targets.

The U.S. government, in determining its volunteer-centric position on plastics, has not been immune to the influence of business interests. As the State Department put it in a statement to Mongabay, it “regularly holds stakeholder meetings, including with organizations from civil society, private sector, and others to seek input during our position development process.”

The petrochemical industry is among those stakeholders, and it certainly hopes to influence the shape of any global plastics agreement. The American Chemistry Council, which represents, among others, ”America’s plastic makers,” spent $19.82 million last year on lobbying the U.S. federal government on a multitude of matters, according to Open Secrets. It hired nine outside law and government relations firms to represent it.

Mississippi River Petrochemical Industry in Louisiana, U.S.
Mississippi River petrochemical plants in Louisiana, U.S., in a Gulf Coast region dubbed “Cancer Alley.” Many petrochemical facilities here are next to poor Black communities that are actively fighting the polluting industry. Image by Ken Lund via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

“The United States is much more closely aligned with [Russia] and Saudi Arabia, than with the European Union at this point” in the plastic treaty negotiations, says John Hocevar, oceans campaign director at Greenpeace USA. In its position paper, Russia emphasized “that the goal of the agreement is not to eliminate the production or use of plastic or impede international trade, but to resolve the issue of polluting the environment with plastic waste.” The Saudi statement calls for “more effective waste management, adapting circularity, advanced recycling technologies, and empowering vulnerable societies that could be affected by this instrument.”

The international Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty favors a strong, legally binding international agreement. Founded last September, it describes itself as “a group of businesses across the plastics value chain, financial institutions, and key non-governmental organizations… calling for and supporting the development of an ambitious and effective global treaty to end plastic pollution.” The coalition includes more than 80 manufacturers, retailers, waste management firms and nonprofits. It proposes moving toward safer plastics that don’t leak microplastics and phasing out single-use packaging. Its vision statement says plastic pollution can be ended by 2060 through a “circular economy approach” that ends waste.

Environmental NGO WWF convened a meeting of the coalition in March 2023 in Washington, D.C., with more than 150 attendees from business, government and nonprofits. WWF says it plans to distribute policy recommendations arising out of that gathering, including proposals to improve recycling and deposit returns. Anthony Tusino, WWF’s senior program officer for plastics policy, gave Mongabay a statement underlining the importance of recycling as part of the solution but acknowledging we “cannot recycle our way out of the problem … but we can understand ways in which we produce less new materials in a way that enables consumers, businesses and governments to work together.”

The Plastics Industry Association, which labels itself “the only association that supports the entire plastics supply chain,” wrote that a treaty should “[r]ecognize the many valuable societal values of plastics and packaging.” It wants a focus on improving technological and structural recycling and waste management. “Bans rarely work,” it warned.

Microplastics in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, U.S.
Microplastics in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, U.S. The full public health and environmental hazards created by microplastic contamination of air, water and land is unknown. Image by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Recycling and reuse fall short “of what we need to reduce plastic production, which is going to be fundamental to the success of this treaty. We cannot meet our objectives if we keep producing more and more plastic,” Hocevar says. Recycling “is not going to keep plastic out of the environment and it is not going to help human health.”

Other groups are making a range of suggestions specific to their causes. The International Council of Beverage Associations wants a treaty that incentivizes recycling and reuse. It cites a need for globalized standards.

The U.N.’s own Food and Agriculture Organization stressed the need to reduce plastic use in agriculture, fishing, aquaculture and forestry. The FAO acknowledged that while its own current voluntary guidelines consider sustainability, they “do not specifically address the tradeoffs or life cycle implications of plastics use, nor do they provide recommendations for their sustainable management.” The FAO’s submission acknowledged the need for more research. While calling for voluntary and nation-specific measures, it also suggested international requirements for recycling and controlling microplastics. It recommended the creation of policies providing incentives to encourage alternative products and processes.

Some commentators got quite specific with their positions. The Smoke Free Partnership, a European NGO aiming to end tobacco use, suggests adding “the right to health” as a treaty objective, as well as the banning of plastic cigarette filters. “Discarded cigarette butts are toxic waste products with the potential to harm ecosystem services, wildlife, and possibly human health,” it stated.

The U.N. parties, and diverse stakeholders trying to influence the parties, remain far apart on what a treaty should cover, while “there is still work to do in establishing the basis for how decisions are going to be made,” Hocevar says.

Regarding the U.N. consensus process, Hocevar believes, “It will be a long and difficult journey to get every government in the world to agree … Everything is still on the table,” but the May-June meeting could at least define the process for reaching a worldwide plastic accord.

Banner image: A wild giant otter with a discarded single-use plastic bottle. Image by Paul Williams via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

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