The UN Plastics Treaty: Your Questions Answered

This week, members and allies of Plastic Pollution Coalition and the Break Free From Plastic Movement have gathered together with other groups and individuals, in Nairobi, Kenya, for INC-3, the third session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for a UN Plastics Treaty. The UN Plastics Treaty was the focus of our October webinar, during which we were excited to receive many excellent questions regarding the negotiation process; participation of frontline groups, NGOs, government representatives, and industry; and potential outcomes.

We are grateful to our October panelists—Jo Banner, Christopher Chin, Justine Maillot, Larke Williams, and moderator Rachel Radvany—who answered many of our participants’ questions during the webinar. Yet we received so many questions that we ran out of time to address them all. To shed more light, we are now taking the opportunity to address the top five unanswered questions that we received. Please note these are answers we at Plastic Pollution Coalition pulled together based on publicly available information, as our panelists were not available to provide written responses (as most of them were busy preparing for or traveling to INC-3).

1. Who is represented at the table at the UN Plastics Treaty negotiations, and in what numbers? 

The UN Plastics Treaty negotiations are governmental in nature, meaning, each of the 175 participating UN Member States sends policy representatives to attend. However, the March 2022 UN mandate requests “the broadest possible public participation” in treaty talks. So in addition, “observers”—frontline individuals and groups, scientists, NGOs, educators, and many other interested groups—have been invited to attend. However, the observers may only provide two-minute statements during plenary sessions “time permitting,” or when asked to provide statements during contact groups. According to UN statistics, 2,245 people attended INC-1 in Punta Del Este, Uruguay, and 1,673 people attended INC-2 in Paris, France. Attendance numbers will be finalized for INC-3 following the end of this round of negotiations. (There are to be five negotiating sessions in total before a treaty can be finalized.) Already, according to CIEL, at least 143 fossil fuel, plastics, and petrochemical industry lobbyists have been counted as registered for INC-3, a 36% increase from INC-2. These lobbyists outnumber delegates from the 70 smallest UN Member States at the negotiating table, including representatives from Pacific Islands that are especially vulnerable to the consequences of the climate crisis.

2. Why are the creators of plastics, including the petrochemical industries, considered as “stakeholders” during treaty negotiations?

Members of nonprofits and other third sector groups—which include Indigenous peoples and civil society organizations—have faced attendance caps and procedural delays limiting their participation. Meanwhile, a significant number of plastic and petrochemical producers and fossil fuel industry representatives have been permitted to attend the talks. According to CIEL, at least 143 industry lobbyists registered for INC-3, a 36% increase from INC-2. Many third sector groups and scientists have called attention to the fact that industry participation is contrary to negotiating an effective, binding UN Plastics Treaty since ultimately an effective plastic treaty would restrict production of both plastics and fossil fuels and are now calling on the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the INC Secretariat to implement strong conflict of interest policies. Industry representatives have held side events during UN Plastics Treaty negotiations, during which they have peddled false solutions to plastic pollution such as mechanical plastics recycling and “advanced” or “chemical” recycling of plastics in order to gain favor with negotiators and the public. Unfortunately, during INC-3, we saw the emergence of a “like-minded” group of historically fossil fuel friendly nations that called for considerable changes to the Zero Draft that was started ahead of this session. (The Zero Draft is considered the starting point for the treaty’s final text.)

3. What is the U.S. stance on the UN Plastics Treaty negotiations, and how do we know? 

The U.S. is the world’s biggest plastic polluter, and it has largely maintained a friendly relationship with the fossil fuel and plastics industries by providing subsidies and other incentives that keep production high and tax dollars rolling in to the government. Yet, the continued costs of fossil fuel, petrochemical, and plastics production, transportation, use, and disposal present disastrous costs to people living in the U.S. and far beyond. The mounting impact of plastic pollution in the U.S. shows us that national, state, and local efforts to address the crisis to date have not been adequate and that we cannot tackle the issue of plastic pollution at scale with existing instruments and commitment levels alone. Instead, we need global, plastics-specific, binding, trackable, and enforceable solutions that translate into major production and pollution reduction results here in the U.S. and beyond. That is why we are calling on the U.S. Government (USG) to take a stronger stance in the UN Plastics Treaty Negotiations. 

4. How would the treaty reduce the accumulated plastics of various sizes and compositions that are already everywhere?

The UN’s Zero Draft importantly lays out the earliest structure and content for a Plastics Treaty to be shaped during INC-3 and the next two negotiating sessions, which are set to wrap up at the end of 2024, when a Treaty should be agreed. Activists and advocates working to end plastic pollution and protect human and environmental health say the UN Plastics Treaty “Zero Draft” is encouraging—but misses the mark on plastics’ climate connections and other concerns. While the draft does correctly identify reduction of plastic production as a necessary aspect of minimizing future plastic pollution, it does not yet set clear targets for doing so—nor does it suggest that we must eliminate all plastics. Clean-up is also mentioned in the Zero Draft, but actual processes and practices for doing so are not directly identified.

5. What kind of monitoring, measurement, and enforcement would happen after the treaty is ratified, and how will plastic producers have to comply?

The Zero Draft currently identifies that “both binding and voluntary approaches” could be a part of the final treaty. While final details are lacking from the Zero Draft, the treaty could potentially mandate far greater disclosure from the fossil fuel, petrochemical, and plastics industries to increase these industries’ transparency and accountability. This early draft also suggests that the treaty’s progress requires period assessment and monitoring to ensure the effectiveness of implementation. Again, details are currently lacking. However, the key aspect to any meaningful monitoring, measurement, and enforcement would require that the treaty be legally binding with strong targets for reducing plastic production. Ultimately, the extent of the impact made by the treaty depends on its final content. 

Take Action

We need legislative and regulatory solutions that address the plastic pollution crisis at the source, reduce plastic production and use, center environmental justice, extend producer responsibility by holding corporations accountable, and create policies that support a regenerative circular society free of plastic pollution and its toxic impacts. Such policies are especially needed in the U.S., which is the world’s biggest plastic polluter as a country. With the UN Plastics Treaty now being negotiated, it’s critical that the USG takes a stronger stance on plastic pollution and engage in real solutions.

Outside the US? Tell world leaders we need a legally binding agreement that ends plastic pollution at the source—starting with fossil fuels and plastic production. 

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