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Rights groups call for plastics treaty as countries split over two versions

Plastic bottles. (Credit: Pixabay)

Over 600 organisations urged states on Tuesday to pen a global treaty to tackle the environmental and health impacts of plastics, but a tug of war between countries seeking a tough agreement and those that don’t want to be forced to take strict measures against plastic pollution could derail efforts, experts warn. Countries are expected to begin negotiations in February 2022 at the next UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya.

“We are in a plastics crisis, and we must move to end that crisis now,” said Jane Patton, from the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), which is leading the campaign, along with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)  and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).

“A treaty is a much-needed push for the world to reimagine and redesign entire systems in a manner that prioritises human and environmental health and fundamentally respects human rights,” she added.

The call comes a week after Japan presented a draft resolution for a plastics treaty on 6 December, a move that took some observers by surprise. The text rivals another proposal presented by Rwanda and Peru earlier in May which has already gathered the support of over 40 countries across regions.

What the two texts say

Both texts call for negotiations for a deal to be drafted, but Japan is seeking a narrower mandate. Its proposal focuses exclusively on marine plastic pollution while Peru and Rwanda’s one looks at the problem of plastic pollution at large.

Another key difference is that Japan’s text looks mainly at actions to tackle the problem downstream – meaning at the level of disposal –, calling for net zero marine plastic pollution by 2050.

In contrast, Peru and Rwanda’s text would allow the treaty to address the plastics problem throughout its life cycle, from the oil being pumped from the ground to produce plastic, to its transportation, all the way to it ending up in a landfill or in the oceans. Another topic that is left out of Japan’s text is harmful additives to plastics, a growing human health concern.

Andrés del Castillo, senior attorney at CIEL, which has conducted a detailed comparison of both texts, together with EIA, told Geneva Solutions that the emergence of a competing proposal could result in a less ambitious agreement.

“We need a strong treaty that tackles the full plastic life cycle, with specific emphasis on control of production and consumption, and that includes clear measures, for example financial measures to help developing countries deal with the incremental costs,” he said.

“The resolution should give the negotiating committee the mandate to find the right balance, being prescriptive as necessary but at the same time allowing for a lot of wiggle room on the topics for discussion,” he added.

While Peru and Rwanda’s proposal leaves the door open for the negotiating group to discuss any other aspect that it “may consider relevant”, Japan’s text shuts that door.

At this stage, it is too early to know how many countries will rally behind Japan as a list of sponsors to the text has yet to be released, del Castillo noted.

At least 81 countries have signed a declaration from June backing the negotiations without specifying which text they would support, including the European Union and Canada. Other leading economies, including the United States, Russia, Brazil and China have been less outspoken about it.

The United States only recently made its position clear that it would support talks when secretary of state Antony Blinken broke the announcement at the end of November during a visit to the UN Environment Programme headquarters, where the assembly will be held next year, if conditions allow it.

The emergence of the Omicron variant has cast doubt on whether multilateral meetings will be yet again postponed due to travel restrictions. A note from the assembly’s executive director dated from 10 December states that the meeting will go ahead in hybrid format, with state delegates and other participants, including civil society, being invited to attend in person provided that they are fully vaccinated.

Plastics gain traction in other fora

States have also used other fora to lay out their position on plastics. Informal talks have been going on for a couple of years at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to find ways to leverage trade rules to curb plastic pollution, such as reducing trade barriers for emerging alternative materials to plastics and harmonising local measures to get rid of single use plastics.

On Wednesday, WTO members will release a ministerial statement calling for “intensified discussions” “to reduce unnecessary or harmful plastics”. The call is backed by the likes of China, Russia, the European Union and some other 37 countries.

For Eirik Lindebjerg, global plastics policy manager for WWF, the statement signals a positive first step for the global trade body. In the statement, the ministers state their support for a global plastics treaty, sending “an important signal” ahead of UNEA in February.