20 Nov 2023

Written by

Joan Marc Simon, Director-Founder at Zero Waste Europe

Global Plastics Treaty: the show must go on?

Break Free From PlasticClimate, Energy & Air PollutionConsumption & ProductionGlobal Plastics TreatyGlobal StrategyWaste PolicyZero Waste Europe - general

The third meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3) for a Global Plastics Treaty concluded on 19 November and, if you expected a breakthrough, you will have to be happy with not having a breakdown.

There were three important points on which the delegates were supposed to agree and didn’t: the rules of procedure, the scope of the treaty, and inter-sessional work.

1. Rules of procedure

After devoting half of INC-1 and INC-2 to discussing the rules of procedure and not agreeing on whether to proceed by consensus or by majority voting, this time the participants agreed to disagree and kick the decision-making procedure can down the road. It looks like there will be no decision on this at INC-4 either, which means that we are gearing up for a potential big clash towards the end of the negotiations.

2. Scope of the treaty

Despite the UNEA5.2 resolution titled “End Plastic Pollution”, the delegates continue to disagree as to what plastic pollution really means and, hence, what this treaty is really all about. For some, plastic pollution is to be solved with waste management; for other,s the plastic crisis can only be addressed if we consider the whole lifecycle of plastics.

3. Inter-sessional work

Despite the fact that INC-3 was the first meeting where the content was properly discussed, it is very clear that it will be impossible to deal with all the details of the treaty in the two intergovernmental conferences that we have left. This is why many countries were calling for inter-sessional work, in order to allow some conversations to advance. However, this was blocked by those interested in delaying and derailing the process.

There is little that was agreed upon other than the dates of the next meeting but, on the positive side, after a phenomenal waste of time and money in INC-1 and INC-2, the delegates were able to finally start talking about content. Starting from the “Zero draft” text prepared by the INC secretariat on the countries engaged in identifying the best ways to deal with every topic – here is a good guide to learn more about this process – and all countries shared their views on all the items in the draft text.

Other interesting developments we observed during the negotiations:

  •  The creation of an alliance of “like-minded” plastic producing countries for plastic sustainability, ranging from Russia or Saudi Arabia to Iran or China. They are the ones deploying delay tactics – such as stopping agreements to do inter-sessional work – or derail tactics – such as pushing to leave plastic production out of the scope of the treaty. These countries are adamant that the problem is plastic pollution and not plastic. You can provide them  with whatever existing evidence of health, social, or environmental impacts associated with extraction, processing and use of petrochemicals (and there is plenty of evidence like that) – they are still not interested.
  • The business coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty continued with its high-ambition narrative of asking for legally-binding reduction and reuse targets, but their credibility was undermined from within when, in the negotiations of the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR), the European branches of the brands went public against most of the claims at global level. Not that countries from the Global South needed reasons to doubt their commitment, but facts don’t seem to disappoint those who expect little from consumer goods companies. The PPWR negotiations in Europe prove that, when the moment of truth comes at the global level, the brands will support more waste generation and recycling, and not move a finger to reduce and reuse.
  • The High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution didn’t show that much ambition after all, and they seem to be falling prey to the rules of procedure which, for as long as they are not approved, give more power to the “like-minded” countries to kill any prospect of ambition.

Our takeaways – how to make the Global Plastics Treaty achieve its goal?

All in all, it is fair to say that we are not on track to deliver a Treaty that is fit for purpose to meet the mandate that was set up in the UNEA resolution. It is also fair to say that, despite the overwhelming and growing evidence of the link between plastic production and climate change – with plastic on the way to emitting up to 25% of GHG emissions by 2050 – the alignment of the Global Plastics Treaty with the Paris Agreement is out of the question. Plastic will operate outside the climate boundaries as if they were different realities.

In my opinion, as long as some countries committed to boycotting the Treaty are allowed into the negotiations, it will be very difficult to achieve anything. I think it will be better to have a good Treaty working for those who really want to address plastic pollution than to try to find a minimum common denominator, which will not deliver a solution for anyone.

It is clear that the only thing where there is consensus is the need to organise waste management at a global level. We need harmonsation of rules, standards, definitions, and instruments (among others) to build inclusive and interoperable waste infrastructure. Yet it doesn’t make sense to use the Global Plastics Treaty negotiations for this! Firstly, because plastic pollution goes beyond waste management; and, secondly, because plastic is only one material, whilst waste management infrastructure must be designed to deal with all waste fractions.

Therefore, in order to get something useful from this process, if I were the chair of this process I would propose the delegates to:

  • Continue the negotiations only for the countries who agree on a scope that covers  all life-cycle of plastics and agree to make decisions by majority voting; and
  • Launch a new global treaty process to organise waste management for all.

Otherwise, we are set for (yet another) big disappointment. I wonder how long must this show go on?

Photo credits: Fenceline-Watch3