Struggling toward a Global Plastics Treaty

March 15, 2024
Competing interests have stalled progress on a worldwide agreement to end plastic pollution.

From the Spring 2024 issue of Plastics Recycling.

By Ron Shinn 

The global plastics treaty is in serious trouble. 

The third of five planned negotiating sessions of the United Nations Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3) ended in Nairobi, Kenya, last November without meeting its goals of creating a full draft of the treaty and scheduling a robust round of working sessions before the fourth meeting in Ottawa in April. 

Environmental groups claim some oil-producing countries and industry groups are using stalling tactics to try to water down the treaty. 

“If they don’t find a way through these delay and divert tactics, Ottawa could become known as the place where the treaty failed,” said Karen Wirsig, senior program manager for plastics at Canada’s Environmental Defence organization.  

Graham Forbes, head of Greenpeace’s delegation at INC-3, was even more blunt when he said the negotiations are “charging towards catastrophe.” 

Should we be surprised? 

Plastic pollution is one of the most vexing environmental problems of our time and will only get worse without worldwide efforts to clean it up. 

It was easy for the 1,900 delegates from 161 countries, and lobbyists representing 143 chemical and fossil fuel companies, who showed up for the first negotiating session in Uruguay to agree there is a problem and action is needed. Optimistic reports from INC-1 and INC-2 in Paris seemed to indicate it might be possible to write a binding, worldwide treaty that would end plastic pollution by 2040.  

The wheels started to come off in Nairobi.  

A coalition of countries led by Canada, Rwanda and Norway, along with 17 other members, want the treaty to reduce production of plastics to “sustainable levels.” The coalition calls itself the “High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution.”  

But some oil-producing countries are having second thoughts, and at INC-3 argued for shifting previously agreed mandates, like focusing on global waste management, to instead adopting voluntary national measures. 

There is strong support on both sides of the argument. “We feel the agreement should really focus on ending plastic pollution and not plastic production,” said Isabelle Des Chênes, executive vice president of the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada. “Implementing production caps can really restrict the availability of plastics for other applications.”  

According to a report from The Canadian Press, a scientific paper co-authored by Miriam Diamond, a professor of Earth Science at the University of Toronto, may get considerable discussion in Ottawa. Diamond argues that spending on waste management while production continues to increase won’t solve the problem.  

The World Wildlife Fund argues that the treaty must address plastic pollution across the entire lifecycle of plastics, and that trying to refocus it to only waste management prioritizes short-term benefits and profits over the health of people and the planet. 

Here is where things stand at press time: Progress on a draft treaty made during the first two sessions ended in the third session as countries proposed hundreds of changes and additions. Critical work between sessions three and four did not get scheduled.  

What does all this mean for plastics recyclers and the greater plastics industry? We should have a clearer picture after INC-4 in April. Will plastic products identified as “problematic” be eliminated? Will new product design rules appear? Will Extended Producer Responsibility become the law of the land? 

Watch the reports from the Ottawa meeting. They could portend changes to your business. Or maybe not. 

About the Author

Ron Shinn | Editor

Editor Ron Shinn is a co-founder of Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing and has been covering the plastics industry for more than 35 years. He leads the editorial team, directs coverage and sets the editorial calendar. He also writes features, including the Talking Points column and On the Factory Floor, and covers recycling and sustainability for PMM and Plastics Recycling.