- International delegates have gathered in Nairobi, Kenya, hoping to make further progress towards the landmark global plastics treaty.
- Steering between the “shall” and “may” – the first considered binding and the second voluntary – is critical to the third round of negotiations for the global plastic treaty, which started Monday in Nairobi, Kenya.
- The delegates seeking to hammer the global plastics treaty have met amid wars in Ukraine and Gaza.
In March 2022, the world resolved to address the growing courage of plastic pollution. According to the United Nations, the world produces about 430 million tons of plastic annually. Two-thirds of this goes to short-term use. At the current trend, the amount of plastics will triple by 2060.
The UNEP observes that the world recycles less than 10 per cent of plastic waste. Moreover, the International Union for Conservation of Nature said at least 14 million metric tonnes of global plastic waste makes its way into the world’s oceans.
There have been conferences and meetings on global plastic pollution. In September, the UN’s lead negotiators released a “zero draft” of a global plastic treaty. As the name points out, the zero draft is the departure point. The draft contains various proposed actions to reduce plastic pollution and the necessary implementation options.
One option is that every nation “shall” compile a list of dangerous chemicals in plastics and observe a plan to phase them out. However, countries “may” create such a list under different options.
Steering between the “shall” and “may” – the first considered binding and the second voluntary – is critical to the third round of negotiations for the global plastic treaty, which started Monday in Nairobi, Kenya.
The Global Plastics Treaty
International delegates have gathered in Nairobi, Kenya, hoping to make further progress towards a landmark treaty to address global plastic pollution. The meeting is happening at the UNEP headquarters as negotiators seek to solve the scourge of pollution resulting from more than 430 million metric tonnes of plastic waste produced annually.
More than 2,000 delegates have attended the global plastics summit. They include representatives from environmental organisations, the oil and gas industry, and civil society groups. The delegates in Nairobi will mull two options: a wide-ranging strategy targeting plastics production or a limited approach focussed on waste management.
On Monday, the first day of the talks in Nairobi, Kenya’s President William Ruto observed that the world was running out of time to reach a global plastics deal before the end of 2023, a deadline set in March 2022. “I urge all the negotiators to recall that 2024 is only six weeks away with only two other meetings to go,” Ruto said.
Global leaders have made slow progress at previous summits. Nations such as Kenya have pushed for a robust and more binding agreement. In contrast, the powerful plastics industry and petrochemical suppliers, including Saudi Arabia, have advocated a more limited approach.
“The vast majority of countries are eager to advance the negotiations to get the job done,” said Pamela Miller, co-chairperson of the International Pollutants Elimination Network, a global public interest group.
“On the other hand, a small group of like-minded countries of mainly major fossil fuel, petrochemical and plastic exporters like Saudi Arabia and Russia are actively attempting to take us backwards,” she said.
A “tricky balancing act”
Anti-plastics advocates remain fervid that countries will unite and deliver binding commitments to halt or slow global plastic production. They seek regulations to control plastic products from production (their chemical elements) to waste (design to allow recycling or reuse).
They wish to follow the global agreement to phase out ozone-depleting chemicals made in 1987. That agreement, known as the Montreal Protocol, had fast and strict timelines, and many consider it more successful than the 2015 Paris Agreement.
The Paris Agreement is based on voluntary national targets for greenhouse gas reduction. The world has so far missed most of these targets.
The proposition for a firm global plastic regulation has gained traction. A new report from the Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation has labelled the existing infrastructure for plastics reduction and recycling insufficient. Non-OECD countries alone need more than $1 trillion in investment to halt plastic leakage into the environment.
In the meantime, voluntary pledges from global corporations to reduce plastic usage are faltering. Since 2018, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation enlisted 150 companies to report on and reduce plastic usage by 2025. Five years later, 20 companies have dropped out, being hesitant or falling short of participation criteria, including setting commensurate targets and making public their progress.
“Plastic offsets” mechanism
Moreover, instead of doing away with virgin plastic, some big companies have recently found other ways to reassure critics, and it is very controversial. They have claimed to have adopted the plastic neutrality principle. They underpin some of these claims by paying third parties to collect plastic waste and pass it on to cement producers to use as fuel in factories.
This is known as plastic offsets, a mechanism in which units equivalent to carbon offsets represent a ton of collected plastics processed or recycled. They are brought by corporations seeking to compensate for their plastic waste. The mechanism has become popular as an approach to tackle plastic pollution. Some industry players have even lobbied for the mechanism in the global plastics treaty.
However, activists have firmly opposed this approach. The negative impacts far outweigh any benefits,” says Marian Frances Ledesma, zero-waste campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia.
Blocking flawed approaches like plastic offsets, regulating plastic along its entire lifecycle, and finding billions of dollars to invest in proper regulation infrastructure – all in a binding manner – represents a surmountable challenge, even in global peace and stability.
Now, the delegates seeking to hammer the global plastics treaty have met amid wars in Ukraine and Gaza. According to Erin Simon, vice president for plastic waste and business at the World Wildlife Foundation, there is a concern that Saudi Arabia, a significant producer of fossil fuels, the plastic building blocks, could use procedural tactics to slow down the treaty approval process.
Nonetheless, advocates remain surprisingly hopeful.
“Although we are not moving fast enough for the planet, we are moving faster on this than any other global issue,” says Simon, pointing out that the zero draft on plastic pollution took just 18 months compared to decades for climate accords.
Even countries that agree very little on everything else agree that plastic pollution is a nightmare. This is according to Winnie Lau, who directs the Preventing Ocean Plastics Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts. “There is a lot of momentum,” she observes, “even from countries that do not like global treaties.” Plastic pollution is just that bad.