The first round of negotiations for the adoption of a global treaty on plastic opens in Uruguay.
From 28 November to 2 December 2022, in Punta del Este, the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-1) will work towards the development of an internationally legally binding instrument against plastic pollution.
INC has the mandate to consider the whole life cycle of plastics and their negative impacts on marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Many stakeholders will be in Uruguay with different agendas and they all will try to influence the negotiations.

Fighting plastic pollution through the circular economy

The first round of negotiations of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-1) for a global plastic treaty will take place from the 28th of November to the 2nd of December 2022 in Punta del Este, Uruguay, following the historic decision of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) that in March this year agreed to start intergovernmental negotiations to develop an international legally binding instrument (ILBI) to stop plastic pollution. INC has the mandate to consider the whole life cycle of plastics and their negative impacts on marine and terrestrial ecosystems and can include new topics, such as the contribution of plastics to global warming, the toxic substances associated and their impacts on human and ecosystem health. During INC-1, delegates will consider, among other things, the potential elements to be included in the ILBI, its structure, scope and objectives.

Christina Dixon, Ocean Campaign Leader at the Environmental Investigation Agency, explains to Renewable Matter: “This first meeting will be fairly procedural and not yet in the weeds of negotiating the actual text, an important outcome is a shared common language about what we hope to achieve with this agreement and what addressing plastic pollution looks like in practice from a policy perspective. This common language includes a shared vision for a safe and non-toxic circular economy, so for example an understanding that we need to have transparency and restrictions on certain chemicals in plastics, but also that we need eco-design criteria and product safety, we need to ensure we are not recycling toxic materials or indeed releasing toxics substances into the air through poor approaches to dealing with plastic waste, such as incineration, and so on. That means concepts such as the waste hierarchy and the precautionary principle will be front and centre of how we frame the problem and its solutions in this setting”.

A treaty that sets the overall goal of ending plastic pollution must support global outcomes which are necessary to create a circular economy in which plastic never becomes waste or pollution, and the value of products and materials is retained in the economy. We believe that clear targets and obligations for governments should be defined to accelerate progress in three critical areas: First, reduction of plastic production and use through a circular economy approach, focusing on those plastics that have high-leakage rates, are short-lived, and/or are made using fossil-based virgin resources; second, circulation of all plastic items that cannot be eliminated, keeping them in the economy at their highest value; and third, prevention and remediation of remaining, hard-to-abate micro- and macro- plastic leakage into the environment, including robust waste management practices and tackling legacy pollution”, said to Renewable Matter Carsten Wachholz, Senior Policy Manager, Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Bottom-up or top-down treaty?

At the beginning of November, the UNEP-partner GRID-Arendal published the report Crafting an effective treaty on plastic pollution: Emerging fault lines in the intergovernmental negotiations discussing the advantages and disadvantages of top-down and bottom-up approaches to the development of an effective global plastic treaty. The report argues that “a top-down plastic pollution treaty containing core provisions with specific and binding global rules and standards will likely address the problem of plastic pollution more effectively than a bottom-up treaty based solely on country-driven approaches. However, the idea of a bottom-up treaty that provides a loose multilateral framework for countries to communicate their national-level policies, versus a top-down treaty that stipulates a common set of policies for all States parties, looks likely to become a major fault line in the upcoming negotiations.

Indeed, according to Reuters the US is trying to create a coalition that would like "to keep the treaty's focus on the efforts of individual countries in a model similar to the 2015 Paris climate accord, rather than provide new universal rules favoured by other major nations". This coalition is in opposition to the High Ambition Coalition (HAC) to end plastic pollution, l ed by Norway and Rwanda, whose ambition is to end plastic pollution by 2040 and that would like to see, among other things, a treaty that includes “global sustainability criteria and standards for plastics”.

Cyprien Ngendahimana, spoke person of the High Ambition Coalition (HAC) for the government of Rwanda, said to Renewable Matter: “The High Ambition coalition recognize the imperative to develop common international and binding obligations and control measures in order to restrain plastic consumption and production to sustainable levels, enable a circular economy for plastics that protects the environment and human health while achieving environmentally sound management and recycling of plastic waste”.

The development of a legally binding UN treaty is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to accelerate progress towards a circular economy for plastics in a globally coordinated way. Without the right international policy framework, we risk implementing a patchwork of disconnected solutions that will fail to shift the business-as-usual trajectory of the plastic pollution crisis”, said to Renewable Matter Carsten Wachholz.

The risk of the Paris approach based on nationally determined contributions

Christina Dixon explained to Renewable Matter: “There is a significant risk that an overreliance on the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) approach instituted under the Paris Agreement will lead to inefficiency and ineffectiveness. This is because Parties do not have an obligation to achieve their NDCs to address climate change – thus, in that respect, NDCs are not legally binding. There is also no mechanism for non-compliance, meaning they are essentially voluntary. Moreover, the lack of international coordination and cooperation on core obligations further upstream undermines national action. To this end, the national action plan framework in the [plastic] treaty must take heed from the shortcomings of the Paris approach and seek to strike the balance between national action and internationally applied core obligations, particularly on virgin polymer production (upstream) and product design and use (midstream)”.

Renewable Matter asked several times, and no later than Friday 25th on the eve of the beginning of the negotiations, to the Ministry for Ecological Transition if Italy intended to ally with the High Ambition Coalition or with the US. Officers within the ministry said they had not yet received indications from the government.

The business sector: a track record of failed promises, but plays key roles throughout the plastic lifecycle.

Earlier this year, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and WWF international convened the Business Coalition for a global plastic treaty, formed by over 80 organizations, including industries that use large quantities of single-use plastics (Coca Cola, Nestlé, Pepsi, Unilever, Danone, Ferrero). The coalition is “committed to supporting the development of an ambitious, effective and legally binding UN treaty to end plastic pollution”, but some observers fear that these companies, with their track record of failed promises and long history of advancing false solutions, might represent a threat to a solid Plastic Treaty. Indeed, in 2018 some of the same companies had also signed the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, voluntarily promising to end plastic pollution by 2025, but the fourth annual progress report, the Global Commitment 2022 published at the beginning of November, found that these companies are far from reaching the goals they have voluntarily committed to and key 2025 targets will ‘almost certainly’ not be met.

The fact that voluntary industry commitments alone are not enough is exactly one of the key reasons why we believe a legally-binding approach to the treaty is vital. Forming a Business Coalition like ours sends a very clear signal that there is broad support in the business community for an ambitious and effective international policy framework. We believe this collective signal will play a positive role in the treaty negotiations, regardless of the performance of individual companies. Because businesses have the capacity and responsibility to tackle plastic pollution at its source, involving them in the process is the best chance we have at solving the plastic crisis” said to Renewable Matter Carsten Wachholz.

Cyprien Ngendahimana said to Renewable Matter: Business and industry [play] crucial roles throughout the lifecycle of plastic. A key to success in modern treaty-making is early and effective involvement of the business community and voices in civil society. Governments cannot act alone in a vacuum. We have heard strong calls for a plastic treaty to level the playing field for business globally. A host of ambitious companies are calling for clear goals and standards throughout the life cycle of plastics. It will be paramount to facilitate the dialogue with the private sector to develop the solutions we need to end plastic pollution. This business as usual is not an option. Business innovation is needed to end plastic pollution.

Fortunately, while there is a High Ambition Coalition and the Business Coalition, there is also a civil society one, The Plastics Treaty Coalition, with over 1000 supporting organisations from around the world and a “Scientists Network for an Effective Plastics Treaty (SNEPT)”, so there are several groupings of stakeholders organising and collaborating to both act as watchdogs for the negotiations but also provide critical expert input, representing independent science, frontline experience and policy expertise, amongst other things. We are also seeing other stakeholder groups like the informal sector (for example waste pickers), fence line communities and indigenous peoples organise themselves in this space. This type of broad stakeholder engagement from impacted communities is vitally important to meet the goal of ‘meaningful participation’ in this negotiation. […] The business sector will be critical for the implementation of the agreement and therefore progressive businesses providing input, best practice and innovation is welcome”, said Christina Dixon.

The indications from the scientific community

The scientific community is following closely the process for the development of a global plastic treaty. In February 2022, just before the UNEA-5 meeting, a Scientists’ Declaration signed by 183 scientists and 37 research institutions warned political leaders that a global plastics treaty must be based on hard scientific evidence if it is to meaningfully tackle the planetary crisis. Later on, scientific papers, reports, and opinion letters to scientific journals argued for the need to cap plastic production and to include toxic chemicals in the scope of the treaty. “Preparatory meeting documents focus on downstream plastic waste and work from a narrow definition of chemicals as hazardous additives. To enable the treaty to fully address plastics’ ecological, health, and environmental justice problems, it is essential to redefine plastics as complex chemical mixtures and to integrate chemical issues across the life cycle within the scope and core obligations of the legal instrument”, says a group of scientists in a letter to Science. Another group of researchers stresses the importance of eliminating toxic chemicals also in bio-plastics and avoiding regrettable substitutions. In a letter to Nature, a researcher warns to “Beware the false hope of recycling”.

Indeed, data show that from the 1950s when plastic production started at the industrial scale, less than 10% has been recycled. Research published in mid-November in the scientific journal One Earth shows that 72% of the world’s largest companies committed to reducing plastic pollution, however, few studies examined if voluntary commitments did indeed reduce it. The research also shows that from companies “there is a heavy focus on recycling and less attention is being paid to turning off the “plastic tap” as the source”.

Contrasting interests around the negotiation tables

Christina Dixon said to Materia Rinnovabile: “You cannot address plastic pollution without addressing plastic production. Therefore, setting a plan [at INC-1] for negotiations that includes scope to discuss measures upstream, e.g., as they relate to the sourcing of petrochemical feedstocks and on the production of virgin plastic polymers, is essential”.

Captain Charles J. Moore, an oceanographer and boat captain known for articles that first brought attention to the floating plastic debris caught in the 'Great Pacific Garbage Patch' is disillusioned about the possible outcomes of the negotiation for a global plastic treaty: At the grassroots we know that the Plastic Plague is overtaking the biosphere and a global Plastic Pandemic is inevitable. Synthetic polymers are a pollutant that, beyond the shadow of a doubt, continue to grow and have become so small and ubiquitous that they will not go away in a time frame equal to the entire history of civilization. No government will attack the profitable hyper-consumption paradigm fueled by the pivot from petroleum as fuel to petroleum as plastic (the solid form of petroleum). Therefore, a true reckoning with the Plastic Plague at the International Government level is an exercise in futility and will waste much valuable time working at the grassroots to create plastic-free circularity”, he said to Renewable Matter.

Many stakeholders will be in Uruguay, nearby the tables where negotiations occur. They have different agendas, and they will all try to influence national delegations. Whether INC-1 will end up setting a clear plan for the work that needs to be achieved over the next two years and a high level of ambition to stop plastic pollution or will set the bases for “a toothless agreementthat takes years to implement and is ineffective at addressing the root causes of plastic pollution will depend, in part, on their differential lobbying capacity.

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