The Road to a Treaty on (Marine) Plastic Pollution
Last March, the universal membership of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) adopted Resolution 5/14 to end plastic pollution through an international legally binding instrument. This was the culmination of years of work by civil society and rights groups, further bolstered by growing pressure from the public for action on plastic pollution. The resolution established an intergovernmental negotiating committee (INC) mandated to thrash out the intricate details of a new treaty on plastic pollution.
But how did the world get to this point—within reach of a binding global treaty? What are the keys to unlocking an implementable agreement to curb plastic pollution everywhere?
This article traces the roots of this process and explores how environment and trade can interact to ensure a fair and ambitious treaty to end plastic pollution.
Plastic Pollution: An evolving challenge
Plastic is a ubiquitous material, and plastic pollution is also omnipresent: plastic litter has been found on the highest mountain peaks and in the deepest depths of the ocean. Plastic pollution has captured the public’s attention over the last decade, with communities the world over increasingly playing a role in trying to address it. We have seen remarkable campaigns and lobbying from groups such as the Break Free From Plastic global collective, advocating for systemic change in the production and consumption of plastic. The media have also signed up to the fight against plastic pollution, further raising awareness of this complex issue.
There is no political divide about the need to curb plastic pollution; global leaders across the board agree this problem must be addressed. However, there are diverging views on how to go about it. Initially considered a marine pollution problem, solutions put forward included beach cleanups and ocean cleanup technologies. Such solutions could be governed at the local and national level, with some regional oversight where required. However, it is now increasingly evident that plastic pollution is a land-based and not an ocean-based problem.
Global leaders across the board agree this problem must be addressed. However, there are diverging views on how to go about it.
In 2015, a team of researchers helped to quantify the problem, estimating that 4.8 million tonnes (Mt) to 12.7 Mt of plastic entered the marine environment in 2010. The year 2015 also saw the world agree on the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG 14, which addresses ocean life, including threats due to marine plastic litter.
The Current State of Play
In response to the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs, the growing scientific evidence, and increasing pressure from the public, states and stakeholders began to consider how best to address marine plastic pollution. For instance, at the 2017 meeting of the Basel, Rotterdam, and Stockholm Conventions (which address the use, trade in, and transboundary movement of hazardous chemicals), states parties heard a proposal to include marine plastics and microplastics in their work program, as some of the chemicals in plastics are hazardous.
That same year, the most comprehensive study on the fate of all plastic ever produced estimated that 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic had been produced since 1950, with 6.3 billion tonnes now existing as plastic waste. At the 2017 Ocean Conference, participants notably focused on marine plastic pollution, with private sector actors and others sharing their activities to curb this very visible menace.
Building on all of this, UNEA agreed in December 2017 to address marine litter and microplastics by establishing an expert group mandated to examine existing and potential response options. Having met four times in 3 years, the expert group looked beyond marine litter and examined a broader range of the plastics supply chain. In tandem with the UNEA expert group’s work, chemicals and waste negotiators meeting in Geneva in 2019 amended the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal to include certain plastics as hazardous materials under the convention.
In its recommendation to UNEA in 2021, the expert group proposed creating an intergovernmental negotiating committee to agree on a new treaty. UNEA took up and discussed this recommendation at length in 2022, culminating in the adoption of Resolution 5/14 to “End plastic pollution: Towards an international legally binding instrument.” Significantly, the resolution calls for the development of an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment.
Preparations for the first meeting of the INC, scheduled for late November 2022, are already in full swing. In late May, delegates met in a working group to set the parameters for the first meeting, including agreeing on the rules of procedure that will govern the INC process and establishing the number of meetings for the negotiating process.
Key Elements for a Strong Treaty
A product of virgin plastic production, which itself is a product of the oil and gas and petrochemical industries, plastic pollution is the end product of multiple everyday uses and activities—some essential, some expendable. Single-use plastic, including packaging, makes up 85% of waste in landfills. To be successful, the treaty will need to limit or eliminate the production of virgin plastic altogether, build a recycling industry to address the 7 billion tonnes of waste plastic already in circulation, and create an honest, just, and sustainable circular economy for plastic.
All 193 United Nations member states have a seat at the negotiating table, with an equal voice on how best to end plastic pollution. The biggest producers of virgin plastic may prefer a less limiting treaty, while others may prefer a treaty with stronger binding obligations, especially with regard to international protections against all forms of what ultimately amounts to dumping of plastic waste. The challenge now is to balance the various interests of states without limiting the ambition of the future treaty or hindering its implementation.
The challenge now is to balance the various interests of states without limiting the ambition of the future treaty or hindering its implementation.
This challenge carries several potential pitfalls. From the onset, lessons can be drawn from the chemicals and waste cluster of treaties. In those contexts, parties have faced implementation threats over the years, particularly with regard to how best to define and address waste material. One of the key loopholes has been in the trade in waste products for recycling in an environmentally sound manner. Trade in waste exists because it is cheaper to export than to develop local recycling infrastructure, which requires both financial investment and space.
The challenge here is twofold: the trade in waste is not subject to international scrutiny but is conducted on a bilateral basis. The second part is even more complex: does the recycling infrastructure exist in the importing state? Can recycling (if the infrastructure exists) of certain materials (including plastic) be conducted in an environmentally sound manner? Which entity between the importer and the exporter decides on and monitors which recycling practices meet the “environmentally sound” designation set out under the chemicals and waste treaties? It is for these reasons that trade in waste is often equated with wasting dumping, an issue the new international legally binding instrument will need to consider carefully.
Plastic waste for recycling has been traded internationally for decades. It is primarily exported by richer countries to poorer countries., China was the chief recipient country of plastic waste until December 2017, under the presumption that this waste was actually a feedstock for a vibrant recycling industry that would turn the waste into new products for exports. After this, the country banned plastic waste imports, instituting the National Sword policy and throwing the global plastic trade into disarray. A few other waste-importing countries in the region soon followed China’s lead, while others took on a fraction of the waste import burden left by China’s exit.
Most plastic waste and scrap in 2020 came from Japan, the United States, and France, while the top net importers that year were Turkey, Malaysia, and Vietnam.
It is from assessing the crash of the plastic waste trade that discussions on how to address plastic waste took off in earnest. But the reasons for the crash still remain. The first part of the sequence is an overproduction of virgin plastic, leading to an overproduction of non-essential single-use items and overpackaging, resulting in an explosion in plastic waste. The second is an imbalance of environmental policy at the national and regional levels and gaps in trade policy, allowing for the export of this plastic waste from developed countries to developing countries. The third is a lack of global oversight on environmentally sound management practices in plastic waste management.
To bolster these and other potential weak spots in implementing the new treaty to end plastic pollution, the discussion needs to encompass both the environmental and trade spheres. Fortunately, in 2020, the World Trade Organization launched the Informal Dialogue on Plastics Pollution and Sustainable Plastics Trade (IDP). However, it is unclear, as of this writing, whether the IDP as an entity will participate in meetings of the INC.
The discussion needs to encompass both the environmental and trade spheres.
There are advantages and disadvantages to having the processes overlap. The advantages lie in the fact that the member states involved in both processes are likely the same, and thus overlap can facilitate information sharing across sectors. The disadvantage, primarily for the environmental side, is that environmental considerations have historically been seen to be subservient to economic and trade matters. In several cases, matters related to trade under consideration by a multilateral environmental agreement process will be shelved to allow the trade body to take the lead. In many cases there are no developments on the trade front, and thus a gap in implementation results. This has, for instance, led to the dumping of electronic waste in African and Asian countries, with weak trade policies allowing for trade in obsolete materials dishonestly labelled as products for reuse or recycling. The management of these “products” negatively affects both human health and the environment.
For the treaty on plastic pollution to be successful, this regulatory gap will need to be sealed. The strongest way to do this is for the IDP to have a seat at the INC table and contribute to discussions about how to strengthen the treaty from the start. Solving plastic pollution is going to be a multisectoral, multi-industry, inter-ministerial challenge in a similar vein to addressing climate change. With the successful conclusion of the agreement to curb fisheries subsidies—with co-benefits for trade and environment—the world has seen it is possible and productive for the arenas of environment and trade to interact for the benefit of all humankind. The spotlight is now on the negotiations to end plastic pollution.
Tallash Kantai is an independent scholar specializing in plastic and a Nairobi-based associate with IISD. She is also a writer and team lead with the Earth Negotiations Bulletin.
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