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As plastic production expands, diplomatic efforts to decrease plastic waste face sluggish progress in treaty negotiations

Plastic pollution has become a global issue, impacting wildlife, ecosystems, and human health even in the most remote areas of the planet. To tackle this problem, United Nations member countries are engaged in negotiations to establish a comprehensive global treaty aimed at reducing plastic pollution, with the goal of finalizing the agreement by the close of 2024.

Significant progress has been made in this endeavor. In September 2023, the U.N. Environment Programme unveiled the initial draft, known as the “zero draft,” outlining ideas and objectives generated from the initial two rounds of negotiations. Subsequently, in November 2023, the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution convened in Nairobi, Kenya, for the third round of negotiations, marking the halfway point in the planned five-session process.

Research indicates that plastic poses threats throughout its entire life cycle, from production to consumption and disposal. Environmental advocates viewed the draft treaty positively as it encompasses provisions addressing each of these stages. The draft includes 13 provisions covering aspects such as reducing plastic production, encouraging the use of recycled materials, phasing out single-use plastics, promoting alternative materials, and restricting the use of hazardous chemicals found in plastics. However, despite three rounds of negotiations, key issues remain unresolved.

Certain nations persist in concentrating on end-of-life measures such as disposal and recycling, while others prioritize the reduction of plastic production. Notably, the United States, the largest contributor to global plastic waste, has been hesitant to endorse ambitious objectives. Encouragingly, the Biden administration recently acknowledged the necessity for national plans to align with internationally agreed-upon targets for reducing plastic, rather than urging individual actions by countries. However, the U.S. stance on other critical issues remains unclear.

Despite its various applications and cost-effectiveness, plastic is facing criticism for what some describe as a societal dependence. A significant portion, approximately 36%, of global plastic production caters to single-use items like food packaging, straws, grocery bags, and utensils, fueled by consumers’ preference for convenience. While global plastic production doubled from 2000 to 2019, recycling rates in the U.S. and other regions have remained essentially stagnant.

Past treaties have effectively mitigated other global environmental issues, such as acid rain, stratospheric ozone depletion, and mercury contamination. Many environmental advocates view the development of a global plastic treaty as a unique opportunity akin to the 2015 Paris accord addressing global climate change. However, based on my research into combating plastic pollution, I assert that the success of such an agreement hinges on major governments adopting a life-cycle approach that addresses all stages of the plastic value chain, from production to disposal. Given that plastics are derived from petrochemicals, the fossil fuel industry wields significant influence in the outcome and will require incentives to support proposals limiting production.

Drawing on the ozone precedent, the United States has historically framed plastic pollution as a waste disposal challenge. Similarly, the industry tends to view plastic pollution primarily as a consequence of people mishandling waste. Key U.S. policies, such as the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act enacted in 2020, have concentrated on waste management rather than curtailing plastic production.

In May 2023, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency unveiled a Draft National Strategy to Prevent Plastic Pollution. Although environmental organizations consider it an advancement from previous policies, the proposal does not impose a ban on nonessential plastics, as some advocates propose.

From my perspective, the draft places disproportionate emphasis on recycling and end-of-life management of plastic. Additionally, critics argue that the plan’s reliance on voluntary waste reduction goals is likely to be ineffective.

I perceive the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which phased out the production and use of chemicals causing stratospheric ozone layer depletion, as a more effective model. Widely acknowledged as successful, this treaty precisely identified the problematic chemicals and involved scientists in the negotiation process. It established an ambitious schedule for monitoring and controlling ozone-depleting substances, engaged industry in developing substitutes, and allowed room for both businesses and regulators to innovate. Thanks to the treaty’s design, along with updates addressing newly identified threats, scientists concur that Earth’s ozone layer is progressing toward recovery.

Plastic negotiations face delays Unity was notably lacking in the Nairobi negotiations on the plastics treaty. Accused of stalling tactics by environmental advocates, certain oil-producing countries, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, and Russia, introduced what green groups deemed as new proposals. These “low-ambition countries” advocated for language allowing individual nations to determine how to reduce plastic, with a focus on waste management.

In contrast, a distinct High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution, led by Rwanda and Norway and supported by the African Group of Negotiators and the Small Island Developing States, pressed for binding targets and the elimination of problematic plastics, particularly single-use items. The U.S., Canada, several other nations, and the European Union have already banned or restricted the use of microbeads in personal care products as an example. These tiny beads, added for purposes such as exfoliation, have become widely dispersed in the environment.

An additional concern revolves around waste pickers, individuals dependent on collecting and sorting plastic waste for their livelihood. Negotiators advocated for a just transition for those engaged in the informal waste economy, suggesting steps like reducing the toxicity of plastics and offering compensation as countries decrease plastic use.

The fossil fuel industry wielded considerable influence at the Nairobi meeting. According to the Center for International Environmental Law, a legal and policy advocacy group, 143 lobbyists from the fossil fuel and chemical industry registered for this round of negotiations, marking a 36% increase from the previous round. Industry objectives primarily centered on end-of-life measures, emphasizing increased recycling rather than production limits.

Ultimately, nations fell short of agreeing on how to streamline proposals in the draft treaty before the fourth round of negotiations in Ottawa, Canada, scheduled for April 2024. The current text still presents multiple proposals for addressing major issues.

Despite the delays, many nations acknowledge the critical need for a binding plastic pollution treaty. In my view, ensuring success involves minimizing the influence of the oil and gas industry and garnering increased U.S. support for a life-cycle approach, encompassing agreements to phase out single-use plastics and harmful chemicals.

Additionally, I propose establishing a formal mechanism for scientists to regularly update policymakers and negotiators on emerging scientific evidence related to plastic pollution. As insights into the effects of plastic waste continue to surface, a treaty reflecting these findings is better positioned to achieve its objectives.

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