Yesterday, in Nairobi, Kenya, the United Nations (UN) concluded the third of five sessions of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3) to develop a global agreement to address plastic pollution. Delegates held their first negotiating session from November 28–December 2, 2022, in Punta Del Este, Uruguay; and the second session ran May 29–June 2, 2023. These talks follow the UN’s agreement on a mandate to negotiate a legally binding treaty addressing the full life cycle of plastics in March 2022.
INC-3 concluded with some encouraging new developments, including substantive discussions and a greater recognition for participation by Indigenous and other non-Civil society groups (hereafter referred to as “third-sector” groups). But these occurred alongside some disappointing obstacles that continue to threaten the integrity of the agreement: Plastic, petrochemical, and fossil fuel industry presence and influences on the negotiations continues to be a primary concern. And while delegates dug into reading, substantially discussing, and developing the treaty’s initial starting document—the Zero Draft—during INC-3, UN Member states failed to reach an agreement on intersessional work to revise the draft ahead of INC-4.
Optimistic Start Slowed by Industry Obstacles
INC-3 kicked off on Monday, November 13, 2023, at United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) headquarters in Nairobi, with a welcome speech from Kenyan President William Ruto, who called on delegates to acknowledge the urgency of the interconnected plastic pollution and climate crises as negotiations began. Our Break Free From Plastic Movement allies attending the talks expressed optimism in seeing many countries—including many of those across the Africa Region (minus Egypt), Palau, Switzerland, Uruguay, and the United States—express willingness to begin working on the Zero Draft and called for substantive negotiations in contact groups as quickly as possible.
In addition to the UN delegates directly involved in negotiations, INC-3 attendees represented a range of observers, including frontline individuals and groups, scientists, NGOs, educators, and many other interested parties. As has been observed at INC-1 and INC-2, also present at INC-3 were many lobbyists representing the plastics, petrochemical, and fossil fuel industries. In fact, according to the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), at least 143 such lobbyists registered for INC-3, a 36% increase from INC-2. These industry representatives 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.
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. Many stakeholders are now calling on the UNEP and the INC Secretariat to implement strong conflict of interest policies. During INC-3, this crucial matter was discussed during a stakeholder’s roundtable also attended by INC Executive Secretary Jyoti Mathur-Filipp. Yet, the panel reported that UNEP did not seem to express a strong commitment to further developing a conflict of interest policy.
Industry representatives continue to hold 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, as well as plastic “credits” or “offsets,” in order to gain favor with negotiators and the public. Unfortunately, during INC-3, we saw the emergence of a low-ambition “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. What’s more, several allies reported that several such countries appeared to attempt to delay negotiations from making progress by focusing conversations on the false promise of “circularity of plastics,” and away from a necessary and significant reduction in plastic production.
Substantive Discussions Show Mixed Results
By the end of Day 2 of INC-3, substantive discussions of the Zero Draft were underway in three contact groups. The first group, facilitated by Germany and Palau, examined the objective, definitions, principles, and scope of the treaty, in addition to plastics and chemicals, and a wide range of approaches to addressing plastic and chemical pollution. Group two was led by Australia and Ghana, and focused on assessing financing and capacity building; as well as key aspects of international cooperation, such as treaty implementation, compliance, assessment, and monitoring. The third group, led by France and Indonesia, gathered elements for potential inclusion in the negotiations’ Synthesis Report and matters such as timelines and mandates for intersessional work. Intersessional work would assure the treaty will be as complete and robust as possible ahead of its final consideration in 2025.
On a positive note, some progress on the treaty was made as delegates met in contact groups: Contact group one outlined some of the major objectives and elements of the treaty, considering countries’ proposals. Group 2 compiled the presented text and members reflected on the edits given the positions of the countries they represented. Group three flagged a need for intersessional work focused on addressing the safety of plastic polymers and chemicals. There is largely agreement that intersessional work is needed to make the treaty as robust as possible. However, there is some disagreement over the path to this work, especially because while some delegates show support for upstream measures to end plastic pollution, others are opting for the industry-friendly downstream approach.
These discussions continued throughout INC-3 with mixed results, reflecting how industry influence continues to be a major challenge to be overcome. Some countries have disagreed over the potential inclusion of trade provisions, even though trade provisions are essential in regulating a material that is traded internationally and those products need to comply with any final agreement. What’s more, some countries proposed a national rather than global approach for binding treaty provisions, though binding rules are needed to significantly reduce plastic production.
According to participants, much greater leadership is needed from major fossil fuel, petrochemical, and plastic-producing UN Member States, including the United States and the European Union. In the end, INC-3 delegates missed an opportunity to prepare ambitious intersessional work on priority areas, including establishing baselines, targets, and schedules for industries’ total reduction of plastic production, and structuring reporting mechanisms that could inform and monitor compliance of the global reduction targets.
Allies Amplify Real Solutions
In stark contrast to industry’s suggested false solutions to plastic pollution, delegates heard statements about the full toxic impacts of plastic pollution from people on the frontlines. Speakers included waste pickers as well as Indigenous peoples, environmental justice activists, industry workers and trade unions, and scientists who underscored plastic’s threats to people and the planet. Allies of the Break Free From Plastic Movement held a widely attended panel discussion on the need to prioritize reuse solutions in the plastics treaty—action that would help us to reduce wastefulness by reducing production of plastics. Indigenous peoples were also able to express the importance of Indigenous knowledge before the delegates, and received support from a few countries to be recognized as distinct partners in the negotiations.
Observers made loud and clear the importance of protecting the health and rights of humans and the Earth. Third-sector participants had high levels of representation at the talks as observers and during INC-3 side events. Youth were also present at INC-3, where they emphasized the need for real solutions, not false solutions, a non-negotiable reduction in plastic production, and an end to the unjust global waste trade. And they seemed to be heard: Some countries, especially those from Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and the Africa Region strongly showed their support for addressing plastic production, chemicals of concern, protecting human and environmental health and rights, recognizing the importance of Indigenous knowledge, and defining the path for a just transition. Yet, while third-sector representatives were better heard during INC-3 than at past INCs, and the influence of industry continues to skew the outcome of the treaty talks.
The UN compound is about 5 miles, as the crow flies, from the Dandora dump site, a massive heap of plastic and other wastes, some imported from other nations as part of the globalized, industrial waste trade. The site is the largest open dump site in Nairobi, and one of the largest in Africa. At Dandora many waste pickers work in dangerous conditions to make small amounts of money from salvageable materials. Delegates from Chile, Colombia, Germany, Norway, Pakistan, the United States, and Uruguay attended a side event organized by the International Alliance of Waste Pickers that advocated for the inclusion of waste pickers in the treaty and a just transition to healthier, better options for employment.
INC-4 is set to convene in Ottowa, Canada, April 21–30, 2024, while INC-5 is planned to be held in Busan, Republic of Korea, from November 25–December 1, 2024. Ambassador Luis Vayas Valdiviezo (Ecuador) was confirmed as Chair for the remainder of the INC process. Ahead of the last two INC sessions, we can see that challenges lie ahead in finalizing a strong, binding agreement to end plastic pollution. However, the opportunity to deliver one of the most significant global agreements in history remains on the table. It is critical now that UNEP and the INCs implement a strong conflict of interest policy and reevaluate how to address some countries’ intentional blocking the ambitions of the negotiation process.
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.