Plastics treaty talks to resume underpinned by diverging interests

Bales of used plastic containers tightly packed to be recycled. (Unsplash/Nareeta Martin)

Countries are set to gather in Paris to continue negotiations on a plastics treaty as campaigners warn about attempts from industry to derail the talks.

Talks on a new treaty to keep the world from drowning in plastics are heading for another round in Paris between Monday and Friday, following a historic decision in 2022 between countries to negotiate a legally binding agreement by the end of 2024.

Plastics have permeated every aspect of society, leading to nefarious consequences for the environment and human health. Countries agreed to hammer out a treaty to tackle the plastic crisis together. In Geneva, where some of the preparatory meetings have taken place over the last year, environmental campaigners and other delegates warn about intentions to weaken the agreement.

After a first round of negotiations held in December in Uruguay, countries are hoping this week will pave the way for an early draft of the treaty to be readied ahead of the next round of talks, due to take place in Kenya in November 2023. After that, they will have one year to figure out the nitty-gritty details and adopt the deal.

“Time for negotiations is short, but this should not lead us to settle for a weak agreement,” Peruvian ambassador Gustavo Meza-Cuadra, chair of the body tasked with drafting the treaty, said by video message at a briefing for diplomats and civil society in Geneva late last month.

Closing the plastic tap or what?

The secretariat coordinating discussions issued a document in April summing up the different proposals countries have made to be considered for the treaty. The document shows a mix of options ranging from obligations to control measures to voluntary commitments.

Among the possibilities is for the treaty to set Paris-like targets for the globe similar to those agreed in the 2015 climate accord, as well as national ones. But civil society groups are worried about the prevalence of voluntary measures.

In an analysis shared with the media, the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) wrote that the secretariat’s paper “troublingly displays lesser ambition than Member States’ submissions, weakens calls for legally-binding measures by turning them into voluntary ones, and borrows from submissions by heavy-polluting countries such as China”.

One key issue will be whether to set targets to phase out or reduce the production of new plastics. The world produces around 440 million tonnes of plastic every year and is on the path to triple by 2060, according to the OECD.

“Scientifically proven necessities for the treaty include upstream measures like a cap on production and phasing out of problematic chemicals in plastics,” Bethany Carney, professor at Gothenburg University and member of the steering committee of the Scientists’ Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty, said at the briefing.

A group of 55 countries, including European Union members, working together to push for an ambitious treaty are in favour of imposing bans and restrictions on the production and consumption of problematic plastics, such as single-use plastics, but also to prevent plastic waste from leaking into the environment.

In contrast, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Russia, where the petrochemical industry wields great influence, have led efforts to have a climate-like agreement relying on the voluntary efforts of each country rather than on a strict global set of rules.

Private interests at play

Civil society has warned about previous attempts by the petrochemical sector to keep the treaty from imposing any limitations on plastic production. With the projected ramp-up for renewable energy and electric cars, the oil and gas industry is banking on plastics, which are mostly made from fossil fuels.

A group of over 150 organisations published an open letter on 20 May urging the UN not to let big oil unduly influence discussions.

The reuse and recycling of plastics are also parts of the equation that the agreement is set to tackle and have attracted the interest of private firms but for a different purpose. Currently, only nine per cent of plastic waste is recycled, while the lion’s share ends up in landfills.

To strengthen the recycled plastics market, the secretariat’s paper mentions Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), a policy tool that could, for example, see companies funding the collection and recycling of their plastic products.

Jodie Roussell, global public affairs lead for packaging and sustainability at Nestlé and a member of the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty, said at the briefing that the group of private firms would like to see “more ambitious language” on EPR.

The group of some 100 plastic producers, retailers, waste managers and others would also like to see harmonised legislation to make it easier for their sectors to navigate an ever-growing patchwork of legislation, from straw bans to recycled content minimums.

“The current scale of the challenge in compliance sees a different number of national laws to be respected,” Roussell said.

Countries are also set to elect the 10 vice chairs to assist Meza-Cuadra in leading discussions, with two representing each region, including one representing small island states. The issue had to be postponed at the last meeting in Uruguay after Russia and EU countries elbowed each other for a place at the table.