Plastic can travel hundreds to thousands of miles once it leaks into the environment. It’s found in every part of the world, and now about 170 countries have come together as part of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) to try and align national policies to curb the transboundary flow. At the current rate, plastic production would almost triple by 2060, with half of it landfilled, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The joining countries’ goal is to hammer out a legally binding global plastics treaty by the end of 2024 to rectify plastic pollution by 2040. But the parties have yet to agree on which polymers and additives to regulate, at what life cycle stage, or how to do it. They’ve got until November 2023 to finalize a draft of proposed global rules.
With the document’s delivery date looming, Erin Simon, vice president of plastic waste + business, World Wildlife Fund recalled some stops and starts at the June INC negotiations in Paris, with delay tactics in play and spurts of progress happening in between.
Much of the conversation was dominated by plastic industry lobbyists with the communities most impacted by plastic pollution having insufficient time to share their ideas say those eager to close in on a strategy to tackle the mounting waste. Saudi Arabia and other mass petroleum producers pushed for a term whereby any nation could veto a rule, but they didn’t get far; with the ultimate decision being that approval requires a two-thirds vote among nations.
The parties inched a little closer to the first iteration of the treaty, coming up with concrete ideas to consider for inclusion in the “zero draft” to serve as a framework to resume negotiations at the next INC session in November 2023 in Kenya.
A system transcending all physical boundaries will demand setting clear goals and targets enforced in all nations. It will call for concisely defined, coordinated policy, coupled with supporting mechanisms for effective implementation. As necessary, a circular approach that considers materials’ whole life cycle must be at the heart of the system, says Marta Longhurst, program manager - Global Plastics Treaty, Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
While there is some divergence around the negotiating table, most stakeholders do seem to embrace a comprehensive, cradle-to-grave concept collectively. Some ideas born out of the June session focus on areas from package and product design requirements to cracking down on illegal dumping and strengthening the overall waste management system.
Language that could make its way into the zero draft document focuses on phasing out or reducing primary plastics.
There was contemplation over banning, phasing out, and or reducing “problematic plastics” and chemicals and polymers “of concern;” talk about import and export requirements; ramping up transparency (via tracking types and volumes and disclosure requirements); minimum recycling targets; mandating extended producer responsibility (EPR); advancing reuse; and including the informal waste sector in the work ahead to reform waste management.
Some of these ideas follow suit with recommendations in two World Wildlife Fund reports created to help guide the treaty development. Specific recommendations include placing controls on “high risk plastics” by product groups. The controls follow a hierarchy that prioritizes elimination, followed by reduction, then safe circulation and safe management where elimination or large-scale reduction aren’t feasible – with the last control applied when alternatives would be at least as damaging, or there just aren’t any proven alternatives.
At the center of the bull’s eye for elimination or reduction are certain single-use packaging and products (plastic cutlery, cigarette filters, microplastics added to cosmetic products, etc.).
Contact-sensitive packaging like pharmaceutical, medical, and hygiene applications are recommended for safe circulation and management – think medication bottles, blister packs for pills, IV bags, sanitary pads, and personal protective equipment (PPE).
The WWF analysis focuses on a starting point for the draft treaty, with the intention that control measures will be strengthened as new alternatives become more viable, Simon says.
“Over time, product groups may move from Class II [controls focused on safe circulation and safe management] to Class I [controls to include elimination or significant reduction]. And it may be possible to set more ambitious objectives for Class I, where bans may eventually be feasible for [product groups] initially identified for phased reductions,” she says.
But control measures targeting specific products are only one puzzle piece; other features will be important for effective implementation, to include monitoring and enforcement, financial and technical support, and trade requirements—the report details these and other measures.
There’s plenty of work to do in just a few months, and the deadline to have a final agreement in place is not much further out.
The parties vested in this work are still on course to finalize the treaty by the end of 2024 with meetings in Canada and Republic of Korea already scheduled, Simon says.
“But staying on that course will require intense work both during and between the INC meetings.”
Taming the plastic sea swell is in their reach, believe stakeholders. The United Nations Environment Programme says by fully embracing a circular economy approach, a 55% reduction in plastics is achievable by 2040, along with an 80% reduction in plastics released into the environment.