What to know about the new global plastics treaty currently being negotiated

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Piles of plastic containers

To understand the global plastics treaty, it’s helpful to go back to the 2022 U.N. Environment Assembly meeting, where delegates agreed to write it. By then, plastics had long been considered an environmental scourge.

The world was — and still is — producing more than 400 million metric tons of the material every year, almost entirely from fossil fuel feedstocks.

Just five years prior, researchers had shown that 91 percent of the world’s plastics were not recycled due to high costs and technological barriers.

Agreeing to write some kind of treaty was seen as a big success, but the icing on the cake was the promise to address not only plastic litter, but “the full life cycle” of plastics.

This opened the door to discussions around limiting plastic production, which most experts consider to be a nonnegotiable part of an effective mitigation strategy for plastic pollution. They liken it to an overflowing bathtub: better to “turn off the tap” — i.e., stop making plastic — rather than try to mop up the floor while the water’s still running.

Experts see the treaty as a critical opportunity to stop the fossil fuel industry’s pivot to plastic production, as the world begins to phase out oil and gas from transportation and electricity generation.

None of the details are even close to being finalized — but observers have called the treaty the “most significant” international environmental deal since 2015, when countries agreed to limit global warming under the Paris Agreement.

And advocates hope that this agreement will ultimately have even more teeth.

Under a very optimistic scenario, it could include global, legally binding plastic production caps for all U.N. member states, plus some details on how rich countries should help poorer ones achieve their plastic reduction targets.

The treaty might ban particular types of plastic, plastic products, and chemical additives used in plastics, and set legally binding targets for recycling and recycled content used in consumer goods.

It could also chart a path for a just transition for waste pickers in the developing world who make a living from collecting and selling plastic trash.

But such a far-reaching agreement is by no means guaranteed; some countries and industry groups are working hard to water down the treaty’s ambition, and have thus far limited negotiators’ progress.

When delegates first met in Punta del Este, Uruguay, in November 2022, it became clear that a vocal minority of countries — mostly oil-producing states including Saudi Arabia and Russia, as well as the U.S., to some extent — wanted to bend the treaty away from plastic production limits by focusing instead on better recycling and cleanup efforts.

Petrochemical companies are also pushing for a focus on recycling, despite their trade groups knowing since the 1980s that plastics recycling would be unable to keep up with booming production.

This disagreement — production versus pollution — has been central to each meeting since then, stalling progress at every turn. Although delegates have held important discussions on plastic-related chemicals and the impact of the treaty on frontline communities, by the end of INC-3 last November, negotiators still hadn’t written anything beyond a so-called “zero draft,” basically a laundry list of options and suboptions for various parts of the treaty.

They also failed to agree on an agenda for “intersessional” work between INC-3 and INC-4, meaning they could not use those intervening months to continue formal discussions, although several countries arranged unofficial meetings.

In a provisional note released ahead of this week’s negotiations, INC chair Luis Vayas Valdivieso made paring down the revised zero draft a key priority for delegates at INC-4. The committee should “streamline” the document, he wrote, and set an agenda for intersessional work to be completed in the months between INC-4 and INC-5.

“INC-4 is going to be likely the most important of all the INCs,” said Ana Rocha, global plastics program director for the nonprofit Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives.

Piles of plastic containers
Researchers had shown that 91 percent of the world’s plastics were not recycled due to high costs and technological barriers. (Magda Ehlers/Pexels)

One of the key priorities for advocates is some kind of quantitative production limit. “If the goal is to end plastic pollution, it’ll be really hard to do without a cap on virgin plastic production,” said Douglas McCauley, an associate professor of ecosystem ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Some of the most specific recommendations are based on plastic’s contribution to climate change. To limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), the nonprofit Pacific Environment calculated last year that global plastic production should be cut by 75 percent by 2050, compared to a 2019 baseline.

The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives has proposed a 12 to 17 percent reduction every year starting in 2024.

A so-called “high-ambition coalition” of countries — including Norway, Rwanda, Canada, Peru, and a host of small island and developing states — say they support production limits as part of the plastics treaty, although they have not yet rallied around a particular target.

It’s also possible that the treaty will have to rely on indirect measures to restrict plastic production, like bans on single-use plastics or a tax on plastic packaging.

Public health has emerged as another major, and surprisingly popular, priority for the treaty. Even in the two short years since world leaders first agreed to broker a treaty, lots of new evidence has emerged to highlight the human and environmental health risks associated with plastics.

Last month, scientists raised the number of chemicals known to be used in plastics from 13,000 to 16,000. More than 3,000 of these substances are known to have hazardous properties, while a much larger fraction — about 10,000 — have never been assessed for toxicity.

According to one recent analysis from the nonprofit Endocrine Society, plastic-related health problems cost the U.S. $250 million per year.

As of last November, more than 130 countries supported incorporating human health into the treaty’s primary objective, and many explicitly said they wanted the agreement to somehow control problematic chemicals.

This is currently reflected in the zero draft, in proposals to prioritize “chemicals and polymers of concern,” putting them first in line for bans and restrictions.

Some substances that would likely be included on this list are polyvinyl chloride, or PVC — the plastic used to make water pipes and some toys — as well as endocrine-disrupting chemicals like phthalates, bisphenols, and PFAS.

Bjorn Beeler, general manager and international coordinator for the nonprofit International Pollutants Elimination Network, said that chemicals are the most “matured” part of the treaty.

Other sections, however — like the financial details of how countries will pay for the provisions of the agreement — have been largely unaddressed.

With so much left to negotiate and so little time, questions are swirling around whether there will have to be an additional meeting after INC-5, or perhaps an INC-4.1 during the summer.

For now, many environmental advocates say it’s important that negotiators stick to the original schedule, running INC-4 under the assumption that they can and will finish the treaty by 2025.

Should they need an extension, they can consider how best to coordinate that at a later date. Rocha, with the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, said she’d rather extend the timeline than rush through a weak agreement.

“More important than an ambitious timeline is an ambitious treaty,” she said.

This story was originally published by Grist.

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