A new global treaty to tackle plastic pollution?

Plastic bottles and other garbage in the Potpecko lake near Priboj, in southwest Serbia, in 22 January, 2021. (Keystone/AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

Negotiations for a global treaty on plastic pollution are expected to kick off next year. Momentum has been building up the past six years and more countries than ever are backing this process, but economic interests from big business and states could also mount roadblocks towards an effective treaty.

As the fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) drew to a close last Tuesday, Norway’s climate and environment minister and current president of the forum, Sveinung Rotevatn, assured that a year from now, countries are likely to begin negotiations for a new international agreement on plastic pollution.

This year’s session was supposed to take up the plastics issue but due to Covid restrictions, it was left to be discussed in-person next February, when the session resumes.

Why a new treaty? The world produces 400 million tonnes of plastic every year. Less than 10 per cent is being recycled and the rest ends up incinerated, dumped in a landfill or in the ocean and other ecosystems. With plastic production expected to double in the next 20 years, plastic pollution is also set to worsen.

According to experts, plastic presents a number of negative impacts for the environment. The most commonly known is microplastics – particles smaller than 4.75 millimetres in diameter. Scientists estimate that 14 million tonnes of these tiny particles reside in the ocean floor.

While the health impacts of plastic and their chemical additives are not yet fully understood, research is increasingly showing how pervasive microplastics are, whether it’s in the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe or the clothes we wear.

Such concerns are what has motivated over 40 conventions and other mechanisms to provide some form of regulations for plastic. But none address the impacts of plastics throughout their whole life cycle, from fossil fuel extraction, to plastic refining and manufacture, to waste management.

There are gaps in the existing framework as well as a lack of coordination among the different instruments, David Azoulay, manager of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) in Geneva, explained to Geneva Solutions.

Azoulay, who has been following the process closely, notes that a global treaty could potentially address such issues. It is one of the topics being debated at the Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues, a series of discussions on different plastic-related issues organised by the Geneva Environment Network, CIEL, the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions Secretariat, the Global Governance Centre at the Graduate Institute, Norway and Switzerland.

Gaining traction. Plastic pollution started gaining momentum in 2014 when the problem of marine litter and microplastics was first brought up by Norway at the UN Environment Assembly’s first session in Nairobi.

Since then, a number of reports have been commissioned and an ad-hoc group of experts has been studying the impact of plastics in the ocean. Their findings have led to an increasing realisation that marine pollution is only the tip of the iceberg.

“There was a growing understanding that in order to address the issue of marine litter, you have to look at plastic throughout all the different phases of its life cycle because an end of the pipe solution may not be sufficient,” Azoulay notes.

By UNEA’s fourth session in 2019, 60 to 70 countries were declaring themselves in favour of a new treaty, with Norway and the EU spearheading the efforts and high-stake countries like Russia and India showing support, he explains. But the US, which was under the Trump administration at the time, strongly opposed the initiative.

Of the 80 countries that spoke at the UNEA conference last week, more than half expressed support for a global treaty, according to CIEL’s monitoring, which now counts a total of 120 countries in favour of a binding treaty.

While the US has not made its position known, the 180-degree turn in its climate policy since President Joe Biden took office in January could mean that it would no longer oppose the idea of a new agreement.

The plastic boom ahead. Despite the momentum that has been built, coming up with a text that reflects everyone’s interests will be challenging.

Environmental advocates, as well as many states, would like to see the treaty curb plastic production and even halt it.

“All of the scientific peer reviewed studies on plastic pollution demonstrate without a single doubt that the only way to reduce the amount of plastic that goes into the environment requires a reduction of the production of virgin plastics,” Azoulay explains.

This means that tackling the problem through other areas such as waste management and recycling are not enough.

“There are a growing number of actors that are very much convinced that whatever this treaty looks like in the end, it should include an objective of capping and reduction of virgin plastic production,” he continues.

“This is, of course, one of the most contentious issues because it is quite ambitious and because there are fantastic economic interests at stake.”

This is especially true for the oil and petrochemical industry. With fuel demand expected to plummet as green energy markets continue to thrive, companies are betting on a boom in plastic demand. According to a report by Carbon Tracker, the British multinational BP had projected before the pandemic that by 2040, plastic would drive 95 per cent of the sector’s growth. The International Energy Agency has made a more conservative estimate placing this number at 45 per cent.

Aligning themselves with these predictions, oil giants are planning to collectively pour $400bn into virgin plastic production within the next five years, potentially resulting in low prices and stranded assets, the report warns.

With such high interests at stake, advocates are expecting heavy lobbying efforts from the sector that could derail the treaty process or result in a watered-down version of text.

Such efforts have been under way for some time now. “The biggest form of lobbying from the plastic industry is trying to frame the narrative. They claim that plastic is not a problem until it becomes waste and is littered in the environment. They're not the ones responsible, consumers are,” Azoulay explains, citing the example of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, which gathers some of the biggest names of the industry, including Shell, Exxon Mobil, Total and Chevron Phillips Chemical.

The initiative launched two years ago pledged to invest $1.5bn to support better waste management in developing countries, all the while funnelling that a few hundred times more into new plastic production.

Countries that are major plastic producers such as the US and China might be tempted to align themselves with the industry’s interests, but they will also have to take into account their climate targets and the plastic carbon footprint is huge. With the current production trend, by 2050, greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could reach over 2.80 gigatonnes of CO2, threatening global efforts to keep the globe from heating over 2°C.

Despite all the different interests that will have to be reconciled, Azoulay is optimistic: “The issue of plastic is moving faster and with more momentum than any other environmental issue that I’ve seen before. There could be many possible explanations for this. One is the sense of urgency, both among the population and the decision makers. Also, the economic opportunities are huge.”

On the trade front. Tackling the plastic problem will need more than a treaty, experts say. Other international efforts are underway to address the economic dimension of plastic. Trade in plastics made up at least five per cent of global trade value in 2018, with a value of $1 trillion, according to a report by the UN Conference on Trade and Development.

“Almost every economy is involved in the plastics sector in some way or another, either as an exporter, or an importer,” says Carolyn Deere Birkbeck, senior researcher at the Global Governance Centre at the Geneva-based Graduate Institute, who co-authored the report.

One aspect that has gained attention in recent years is trade in plastic waste. China’s unprecedented ban in 2017 on its plastic scrap imports resulted in a sharp decline in trade flows. In 2019, a game-changing amendment to the Basel Convention on waste management was adopted. The new rule, which entered into force 1 January 2021, allows developing countries to refuse shipments of low-quality plastic scrap that would be hard to recycle.

Recently, a group of countries in the World Trade Organization (WTO), led by China and Fiji, have launched informal discussions about how trade policy can help reduce plastic pollution and promote a circular plastic economy.

Among the measures they are looking into is improving transparency, lifting barriers for non-plastic substitutes such as jute, sisal, bamboo or hemp-based products and supporting transferring of waste management technology from richer to poorer countries.

Read also: WTO members want to tackle plastic pollution through trade

Countries are also adopting different bans, including import restrictions and bans, that tackle specific single use plastic products such as straws, bags and other types of plastic packaging. Another issue being considered at the WTO is whether there could be more transparency and coordination among these kinds of restrictions so that they actually make a bigger difference.

“Interestingly, some of the largest international brands support calls for such coordination and for greater transparency. While it might lead to more and wider restrictions on certain types of plastics trade that could complicate their supply chain, from a commercial point of view, many leading companies have already committed to reducing their plastic footprint. In that context, knowing how the policy landscape is evolving is preferable to facing an unpredictable patchwork of bans,” Deere Birkbeck explains.

While the conversation is still at early stages and no agreement is on the table, the WTO could play a key role in tackling the plastic issue.

“If governments agree at UNEA to launch negotiations for a plastics pollution treaty, it will likely focus first on the important task of forging agreement on some core overarching goals, targets, and commitments, but there is growing recognition that making a difference to plastic pollution will require significant economic transformations,” Deere Birkbeck says.

“Dialogue at the WTO can help spur governments to think harder at the national level about the economic and upstream dimensions of the plastic pollution problem, how trade flows are relevant, where trade-related challenges and opportunities lie, and how international cooperation on these could support efforts to tackle the plastics crisis.”