The latest round of negotiations towards an international legally binding instrument to address plastics pollution started this Monday, 13 November, in Nairobi, Kenya. So far the process triggered by a key UN vote to adopt a Plastics Treaty in 2022 has moved at pace. Tough decisions, however, lay ahead on the extent to which primary plastics production will be curbed as opposed to focusing measures on the ‘tailpipe’ of managing plastic waste.
The UN mandate adopted in 2022 called for a treaty to be negotiated before the end of 2024. Following two earlier rounds of negotiations, INC-1 and INC-2, which took place in November 2022 and June 2023, the Zero Draft text of the treaty was published in September 2023. Advancing this draft text is the subject of the negotiations in Nairobi, which are taking place until 19 November 2023.
The Zero Draft is the first version of text that could become a legally binding plastics treaty aimed at reducing the level of plastics production and corresponding environmental and public health risks. It is presented through various ‘options’ which incorporate varying levels of obligation for State parties and producers and exporters of plastics.
Such a treaty may have far-reaching impacts for major plastics producing States and companies in the petrochemical industry. However, the extent to which State parties and industry players will be affected will ultimately depend on the strength of the obligations included in the final treaty wording, and which options from the Zero Draft are included in the legally binding treaty.
Current options on the table include the imposition of reduction targets on the production of plastics and removal of subsidies for plastics producers and the requirement for States to establish a plastic pollution fee paid by producers within its jurisdiction. Producers could face additional disclosure requirements and compliance costs if an obligation is included to share information about environmental and health hazards of plastic products, and to mark and label relevant products in line with new ‘harmonized requirements’. Producers may also be required to disclose information about the chemical composition of all plastics and plastic products throughout their lifecycle.
The ‘High Ambition Coalition’, a group of states including the EU, the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan and the UAE, have advocated for a treaty based on global measures which include binding provisions to reduce the production and use of plastic polymers produced from petrochemicals, and to eliminate or restrict ‘problematic’ plastics, such as PVC.
States who are large oil and petrochemical exporters have argued that the treaty should emphasize an acceleration of a circular economy for plastics, focusing on waste, recycling and reuse rather than on production controls. Shortly before the opening of the INC-3 negotiations, Saudi Arabia launched the ‘Global Coalition for Plastics Sustainability’, with other members including Russia, Iran, Cuba and Bahrain. Such States have advocated for a model that is driven through bottom-up state-level pledges, rather than an overarching global framework.
Alongside substantive debate, States will need to reach agreement on certain procedural issues that caused delays during the INC-2 negotiations in Paris – including whether decisions under the treaty should be adopted by consensus or a majority vote.
The prospect of a Plastics Treaty may help to spur the development of novel technologies to address difficult to recycle plastics that currently end up in lower grade products – though the industrial development of these processes are controversial as solutions themselves. If adopted, the new treaty will sit on top of existing regulations specifically targeting single-use plastic items or setting minimum recycled content that have already been adopted by individual countries and regions. However, to date these regulations have been narrowly focused on small consumer items and packaging. The field of vision for the treaty is far, far wider.