Last week in Paris, France, the United Nations (UN) wrapped up the second of five sessions of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-2) to develop a global agreement to address the plastic pollution crisis. The sessions were initiated last year after the UN agreed on a mandate to negotiate a legally binding treaty addressing the full life cycle of plastics. The first negotiating session was held this past December in Punta Del Este, Uruguay.
This treaty is a major opportunity to implement real solutions that can alleviate, and remediate plastics’ numerous and widespread impacts. Of course, its efficacy ultimately depends on how—and for whom—the Global Plastics Treaty is shaped.
INC-2 concluded with a mix of high and low points, with results that range from underwhelming to deeply concerning. In response to these latest developments in the negotiations, civil society organizations have called on delegates to put an end to the use of tactics that slow progress and act to lower the treaty’s potential ambition. On a cautiously encouraging note, at INC-2’s 11th hour, negotiating parties agreed to produce a “zero” draft laying out the treaty’s direction prior to the start of the next session, INC-3, in Kenya in November. The direction this zero draft sets out will be critical in determining the fate of the treaty.
A Bumpy Start and Industry Influence
It is now clear that plastic pollution is one of the most severe human-made crises of our time, seriously harming planetary, human, and wildlife health, driving social injustices, and fueling the climate crisis. Plastic permeates Earth’s air, soils, fresh waters and seas, not breaking down but instead breaking up into tiny particles that deliver hazardous chemicals into our bodies. Plastic pollutes from the moment its fossil fuel ingredients are extracted from the Earth, throughout its manufacturing, storage, transportation, production, use, and eventual disposal.
Despite the urgency of the crisis, at INC-2, last-minute attendance caps for civil society groups and procedural delays limited participation and hampered the progress of discussions. Many people—particularly members of civil society, such as advocacy, scientific, frontline, and Indigenous groups, including many individuals involved in the Break Free From Plastic Movement—expressed serious concern over these developments which ultimately silenced key viewpoints that should have been shared during the negotiations.
Industry influence and presence at the negotiating sessions remains a major obstacle to crafting an effective Global Plastics Treaty. At INC-2, industry representatives hosted side events peddling false solutions, such as plastic credits. These events served as a distraction from discussions of the real, necessary solutions including: reuse, refill, repair, and share systems; protections for frontline communities; enforceable regulations for polluters; and, importantly, serious cuts to plastic and fossil fuel production.
Joining Allies to Make Our Voices Heard
Throughout INC-2, civil society, frontline groups, and scientists made their voices heard—inside and outside the negotiating room. Many members of the Break Free From Plastic movement hosted events and actions to draw attention to key truths about plastic pollution and perspectives of those people worst harmed. Indigenous Peoples from around the globe hosted a well-attended side event urging nations to adopt a strong plastics treaty to address the global crisis, protect Indigenous lives, and respect Indigenous knowledge. Indigenous Māori peoples from New Zealand emphasized the need for truly regenerative and circular systems and dispelled industry propaganda claiming that plastics can exist in a circular economy.
Plastic Pollution Coalition Artist Ally Ben Von Wong showcased his “Perpetual Plastic Machine,” an incredible art collaboration with Greenpeace depicting the full toxic and damaging existence of plastic and its fossil fuel ingredients.
Plastic Pollution Coalition team member Jen Fela attended INC-2 and shared the voices of our broad membership, by submitting a statement to the UN from Coalition Member Businesses calling for a Global Plastics Treaty that supports the many small businesses working to create innovative, plastic-free products and systems, and delivering a letter to the US government from allied organizations urging the nation’s leaders to take a stronger stance in the negotiations.
We remain steadfast in calling for just, real solutions that eliminate plastic pollution by turning off the tap on production. We continue to uplift solutions that are grounded in plastic-free, nontoxic reuse, refill, repair, and share systems.– Jen Fela, Vice President of Programs & Communications, Plastic Pollution Coalition
Key Considerations for a “Zero Draft”
After days of procedural delay, delegates finally dug into the negotiations in two parallel “contact groups”: one focused on the what of the treaty (objective and core obligations), and the other focused on the how (financial mechanisms, capacity building, and national action and implementation plans).
By the end of negotiations, parties agreed to produce a critical first “zero” draft prior to the start of INC-3 in Kenya in December. The next six months leading up to INC-3 will be important because of how INC-2 was handled, meaning much intersessional work must happen to keep negotiations on track. The plan is for the treaty to be finalized by the end of 2024, with just three more sessions remaining to negotiate.
As Plastic Pollution Coalition Communications Manager Erica Cirino pointed out in a New York Times Letter to the Editor that ran just after the talks, turning off the tap on plastic production and pushing back on false solutions and harmful narratives is now of utmost urgency and necessity.
A key issue for negotiations will be the criteria used to differentiate and define the thousands of chemicals, plastics, and products in the plastics supply chain. As delegates finally dig into the substance of the zero draft, we predict that the debate over how to define plastic pollution will come early. It may seem straightforward, but it turns out that there is not currently one legally binding nor agreed upon definition of plastic pollution. As a result, this is a potential avenue for narrowing—or expanding—the scope of debate in treaty negotiations, depending on whether or not parties can agree on one definition. A good place to start could be to follow the lead of scientists and Canada by designating and regulating plastic pollution as “hazardous waste” or “toxic waste.”
‘Toxic waste’ is waste material that can cause death, injury, or birth defects to living creatures. It spreads quite easily and can contaminate lakes, rivers, and the atmosphere. The term is often used interchangeably with ‘hazardous waste,’ or discarded material that can pose a long-term risk to health or environment.— Jackie Nuñez, Advocacy & Engagement Manager, Plastic Pollution Coalition & Founder of The Last Plastic Straw
It is critical, as some delegates pointed out, to take a precautionary approach to addressing microplastics, human rights, and prioritizing a just and safe transition to healthier and more sustainable work for people now employed across the plastics supply chain. Some countries —including Ecuador, members of the European Union, Mexico, and Rwanda—also helpfully called for global reduction targets for plastic production, requiring disclosure obligations similar to the Framework on Tobacco Control.
Just ahead of INC-2, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) had published a report laying out a proposed roadmap to address plastic pollution. Unfortunately this report does not adequately tap real solutions, and instead is dependent on polluting technological fixes and recycling, as well as reuse of toxic plastic. Most worryingly of all, the report does not call for a necessary and significant cut in plastics production. This is not the path to take, as it will only work to perpetuate pollution and injustice.
While UNEP is calling for a transformation of the plastic economy, we are calling for the elimination of the plastic economy for all non-essential plastics.– Alejandra Warren, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Plastic Free Future, a Plastic Pollution Coalition Member, in The Hill
As the zero draft is being created by November in the lead-up to INC-3, it’s crucial to continue speaking out about the urgency to address plastic pollution by supporting real solutions. We must convince government leaders to take a strong stance and support a bold, binding global plastics treaty that addresses the full life cycle of plastics. You can help by signing petitions to the U.S. Government and world leaders, and by amplifying the voices of people on the frontlines of the crisis.
As Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme Inger Andersen put it, “This is a once-in-a-planet opportunity.” We must act now.