Plastics treaty talks to get the green light at environment summit

A 30-foot art piece entitled “Turn off the plastics tap” by Canadian activist and artist Benjamin von Wong, stands outside the UN Environment Assembly held in Nairobi, Kenya. (Credit: UNEP/Cyril Villemain)

Countries are inches away from launching negotiations for what many view as the Paris agreement of plastic pollution.

Negotiators were cooped up in meeting rooms up until 2am on Sunday fleshing out a proposal for a legally binding plastics treaty. After a tough round of bargaining, a final draft resolution is expected to be adopted on Wednesday evening by more than 100 countries gathered this week in Nairobi, Kenya, for the UN Environment Assembly.

The world produces around 300 million tons of plastic waste every year – the equivalent weight of the human population – and only nine per cent has ever been recycled, according to UN figures. Research has shown that plastics are disrupting ecosystems and posing a threat to human health, degrading into tiny particles that are ingested by organisms and releasing toxic chemicals into the water, air and soil. 

If the resolution is adopted – and observers are not expecting any pushback – a committee will be formed and tasked with penning the deal within the next two years. The resolution calls for a legally binding agreement that tackles plastics at all stages, as an initial text tabled by Rwanda and Peru and backed by more than 50 states had proposed.

Two softer proposals had been tabled as alternatives, one by Japan exclusively focusing on marine plastic pollution and another one by India calling for voluntary measures instead of legal obligations. But neither one of them rallied much support.

“The fact that the treaty will look at plastics throughout its whole life cycle is important. We cannot solve that problem by looking only at the last element of the chain,” said Swiss ambassador for the environment Franz Perrez, who is in Nairobi leading negotiations for Switzerland.

The fight has just begun

While environmental advocates and diplomats alike have said they are happy with the final text countries have come up with, the knitty-gritty details of the agreement have yet to be decided.

“We have just agreed to launch negotiations for a legally binding instrument, but the robustness, the bindingness and and the effectiveness of that agreement, will be determined by these negotiations,” Perrez told Geneva Solutions.

A leading negotiator told Geneva Solutions that India had been trying to torpedo efforts for a tough agreement last week but had later softened its position over the weekend, finally agreeing on the legal nature of the deal. The agreed draft resolution leaves the door open both for global, legally binding rules and for voluntary measures – a compromise between the three proposals.

“One of the key challenges of the negotiations will be to agree in which areas we have binding rules and in which we call for volunteer measures. These questions are still open and that's the reason why the preparatory meetings will be important,” Perrez added.

The final text also mentions that national circumstances and capabilities should be taken into consideration. This “weakens the text”, according to Eirik Lindebjerg, global plastics policy manager at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), which has been advocating for a tough treaty along with other rights organisations. 

But India’s input also had a positive effect on the resolution, Lindebjerg noted, by strengthening the aspect of financial assistance that developing countries would need to abide by the treaty.

“This is very important for international environmental diplomacy in general. We've been through a decade with a lot of focus on voluntary commitments, declarations, and big speeches sometimes without much meaning (...) So hopefully this can create a new positive drive for proper global environmental policy,” he added.