UN Global Plastics Treaty Negotiations (INC-3) Conclude in Nairobi

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.

A waste picker stands in the Nairobi River collecting plastic from the Dandora dumpsite. Photo by Christy Gilmore, 2010

Take Action

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.

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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. 

November 15, 2023 , 9:00 am 10:00 am EST

Join us for the BreakFreeFromPlastic panel discussion on Reuse Solutions for the Global Plastics Treaty on Wednesday 15 November. This panel discussion will explore research, policy enablers and challenges to scaling of reuse solutions.

Doors will open at 5:05 pm, and we will begin the event at 5:10 pm.

Panel speakers include:
Joan Marc Simon, Director, Zero Waste Europe
Steve Fletcher, Director Global Plastics Policy Centre, University of Portsmouth
Miguel Roset, Executive Director, Retorna
Rahyang Nusantara, Deputy Director, Dietplastik Indonesia

November 13, 2023 , 8:00 am November 19, 2023 , 5:00 pm EST

The third session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution (INC-3), is scheduled to take place from 13 to 19 November 2023 at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya.

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, third sector 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 third sector groups and procedural delays limited participation and hampered the progress of discussions. Many people—particularly members of third sector, 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, third sector representatives, 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.

Plastic Pollution Coalition team member Jen Fela delivers two letters—one from Coalition Member Businesses and one from allied organizations—to Jennifer R. Littlejohn, Acting Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, in Paris ahead of INC-2

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

Take Action

No Plastic in My Sea Youth Action.
Photo by #BreakFreeFromPlastic

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.

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May 3, 2023 , 12:00 pm 1:30 pm EDT

Plastic pollution is a global crisis in need of global solutions. Plastic pollutes along its entire lifecycle from source to disposal, and this complex set of problems requires a comprehensive set of solutions that address the root causes of the plastic pollution crisis. Meet and learn from two of the people working at the top levels of civil society to forge a robust and binding Global Plastics Treaty through the process set forth by the UN Environment Program (UNEP).

Presenters: Jane Patton, Campaign Manager, Plastics & Petrochemicals, Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), and Christopher Chin, The Center for Oceanic Research Awareness and Education (COARE)