An ambitious global plastics treaty requires transformative alliances

There is everything to play for and little time to lose as negotiations start in Uruguay on a new global plastics treaty.

Expert comment Updated 26 January 2023 Published 18 November 2022 4 minute READ

Plastics pollution is a global environmental challenge. A threat to biodiversity, the climate, human health and the economy. And it is a wholly human-made crisis created within just two generations. 

Once in the environment, plastics break up and disperse to the remotest corners of the planet. The scale of the challenge includes microplastics found in every aspect of our world such as in animals, in drinking water and even in people’s blood with a potentially high risk to human health.

The global nature of the problem includes increasingly complex transborder value chains, from the production of polymers, to the manufacturing of products, to waste generation often after only a single use.

The UN Environment Programme warns that, without policy interventions, the amount of plastic waste in the environment is projected to approximately double by 2030 from an estimated 19-23 million tons per year in 2016 to around 53 million tons per year. By 2040, the World Wide Fund for Nature estimates that the societal costs of projected plastic production could reach more than US$7.1 trillion.

Transborder challenges require transborder solutions particularly when the health of the planet is at stake. However, in this period of increasing nationalism, it is hard to get international consensus these days, let alone a global legally binding agreement. This makes the recent mandate given to the UN Environment Programme to negotiate a plastics treaty all that more remarkable as well as the fact that a number of major companies have woken up to their own corporate responsibility in supporting this agenda. 

To find an urgent solution, in March 2022, the United Nations Environment Assembly adopted a landmark resolution and initiated negotiations for a global plastics treaty to end plastic pollution. Hailed as the most significant multilateral proposal since the Paris Agreement in 2015, the resolution establishes an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) tasked with preparing a legally binding treaty by 2024.  

Is it possible?

In August 2022, the governments of Norway and Rwanda, with the support of 18 other countries, launched the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution. This growing coalition of like-minded countries, including the UK, will work to develop an ambitious international legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution by 2040. It proposes a circular approach that ensures urgent and effective action along the whole lifecycle of plastics.

The UK’s position so far has been to support an ambitious treaty as part of the coalition. The UK government, under Rishi Sunak, can continue to play a leadership role and has an opportunity to use its expertise, UN P5 membership, diplomatic strength and network to potentially bring on board other countries, such as India, whose support and leadership from the Global South will be critical to ensuring a meaningful outcome. 

Yet, absent from the coalition are major plastics producing countries. While China, India and Saudi Arabia have supported the approval of the plan to create a treaty, their negotiating positions remain unclear. 

Successful negotiations, and an effective global approach to addressing plastic pollution going forwards, will require close transatlantic cooperation on key issues.

Significantly, there is also currently no alignment between the members of the coalition and the United States, who is reported to be seeking its own coalition advocating for national action plans as a primary mechanism. Successful negotiations, and an effective global approach to addressing plastic pollution going forwards, will require close transatlantic cooperation on key issues. However, domestic policy debates in the US around federal taxation on plastics and similar state-level policies will likely limit the ambition the US government can bring to the UN negotiations.

In 2021, for example, trade groups such as the American Chemistry Council (ACC) representing 28 companies, including oil giants such as ExxonMobil, Chevron and Shell as well as major chemical manufacturers such as DuPont and Dow Chemical, have been lobbying against a US-wide tax on plastics and the proposed Break Free from Plastics Act.

Moreover, the combination of the current partisan gridlock in Washington and the high hurdle of a necessary two-thirds vote of the Senate to approve any international treaty, may partly explain why the US administration under Joe Biden seems to be tempering its ambition even as it recently won passage of far-reaching domestic climate legislation. Yet, the recent gains by Democrats in the midterm elections could strengthen calls for new environmental laws on plastics.

Business alliances

Also striking is the new Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty standing behind the vision of the international treaty as the single most important opportunity to accelerate progress towards a circular economy. 

During the UN General Assembly meeting in New York in September 2022, 85 organizations, including major global businesses such as Coca Cola, Unilever and Nestlé, as well as financial institutions and NGOs, chose to support a legally binding treaty.

As with the climate crisis, a committed and ambitious business and finance community is required to play a constructive role in finding solutions, and the discussions are expected to include a negotiating track on financing with the possibility of a multilateral fund on the table.  

Adequate financial provisions must be made to build capacity of low- and middle-income countries to meet the obligations of the agreement. Plastics credits are emerging as innovative finance solutions. While these are opportunities for companies to invest in regional recycling infrastructures, these markets require a robust framework to ensure transparency and effectiveness if they are to become an internationally standardized solution. Avoiding greenwashing, and ensuring there are no loopholes for large producers, will be critical to the treaty’s success in urgently tackling the issue.

Human rights considerations

In parallel to the plastics treaty negotiations, evidence is emerging that growing amounts of plastic waste is not only an environmental emergency, but a growing human one.

A recent report by Human Rights Watch on plastic waste exporting from the EU and UK to Turkey shows how air pollutants and toxins emitted from plastics recycling affects workers, including children, and those living near recycling facilities.

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Plastic waste and the human rights of informal waste pickers and other marginalized groups working in the plastics waste sector will be an important theme of the treaty negotiations too, given reported concerns of exploitation by organized criminal networks, as will the principles of a ‘Just Transition’ for workers in plastic production, packaging and recycling.

The fact that countries are willing to come together to agree a multilateral treaty at this time should not be underestimated.

Pacific Island States are also likely to be concerned about appropriate remedies for legacy plastics pollution.

Plus, the new UN General Assembly resolution recognizing the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, though not legally binding, may give impetus to action at the intersection of the social and environmental impacts on people as well as resources. Indeed, the proposed treaty is likely to be the first test of this newly recognized right.

The negotiating timeline for the global plastics treaty is necessarily ambitious to match the true urgency of the plastics pollution crisis. Without the US, other key countries and the petrochemicals industry on board, the road ahead is long. Yet, the significance of the moment, the current level of public engagement and the fact that countries are willing to come together to agree a multilateral treaty at this time, should not be underestimated.