The beginning of the end for plastics pollution?

February 6, 2024
Plastic pollution on beach

The United Nations is expected to deliver a legally binding agreement on plastics pollution by the end of 2024.

UNDP Maldives

This is a monumental year for multilateralism to prevail in the fight against plastic pollution, as the United Nations has committed to deliver a legally binding agreement by the end of 2024. The agreement is expected to catalyze global action to transform the way we produce and dispose of plastics. Three rounds of negotiations have laid the groundwork, and two more meetings of the inter-governmental committee of negotiation will convene in Canada and South Korea in April and November. Here are four key issues to watch for in 2024.

Consensus is the challenge of plastic pollution

Following heated discussions at the second meeting of negotiators in Paris, nations remain undecided on whether to exclusively adopt decisions by consensus or to consider a two-thirds majority vote.

Consensus is a fundamental principle in global diplomacy. It ensures that everyone is involved, it encourages ownership, and leads to decisions that all consider legitimate and fair. However, when it comes to a complex issue like plastic pollution, where some nations benefit from increased plastic production while others bear a disproportionate burden, consensus can be difficult.

Previous experiences with other global environmental agreements show that depending solely on consensus can slow down progress and result in compromises that reduce effectiveness. Judging from its most recent meeting, this could happen to the plastics treaty talks. While plastic production is expected to triple by 2060, recycling rates hover below 10 percent. Science tells us that downstream measures alone will not end plastic pollution.

All eyes are on the upcoming negotiations to see if a balance can be found between inclusivity and the need for prompt, effective action.

How will the climate negotiations affect plastics negotiations?

At the recent climate Conference of the Parties (COP 28), leaders agreed that the world needs to transition away from fossil fuels to achieve net zero by 2050. This could have significant implications for the fossil fuel industry, given that 99 percent of plastics are produced from fossil fuels. Some experts predict that plastics will become the ‘Plan B’ for the fossil fuel industry. According to the International Energy Agency, plastics are set to drive nearly half of oil demand growth by midcentury.

UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen warned at COP 28 that; “plastics are not a lifeboat for you as energy systems decarbonize. The world can’t afford the emissions. And besides, what are you going to do in a lifeboat, except bob around aimlessly while the world changes around you?”

Negotiators are therefore encouraged to consider the links between climate and plastics negotiations and the implications for plastics, because climate change and plastic pollution are two sides of the same coin. The private sector could also get ahead of the future treaty by starting to intensify their search for sustainable options. This new direction can increase the market share of businesses that adopt green energy options and sustainable ecological alternatives to plastics.

What role will the private sector play? 

The role of the private sector in plastic pollution cannot be ignored. A recent study found just 20 companies were the source of more than half of single-use plastics. While producing plastics may seem cheap, the price fails to account for environmental and socio-economic costs. According to WWF, the societal cost of plastic pollution, emissions, and clean-up could be as high as US$3.7 trillion - more than India’s GDP - from plastic produced in 2019 alone. 

Besides the moral responsibility for producers, they also are best positioned to address the shift to environmentally sustainable products. Policy, economic and social incentives need to be developed to make producers more responsible for the environmental costs of their products. The plastics treaty is expected to establish extended producers’ responsibilities schemes that will tackle plastic pollution at its source.

How private companies, especially the fossil fuel companies and plastics producers, will act in the plastics treaty negotiation remains to be seen. An analysis has also shown that the number of lobbyists from fossil fuel and chemical industries in the negotiations is increasing. Some of the member states have also included fossil fuel company lobbyists in their delegations. 

How will governments respond?

Some countries have already taken steps. Rwanda banned single use bags and cutlery as early as 2008. Thirty-four African countries have followed suit. As negotiations proceed and public awareness and scrutiny increases, more governments will be pressured by civil society, and are expected to introduce regulations.

Local governments have also picked up the fight. In November 2023, New York State sued PepsiCo accusing the beverage and snack food giant of polluting the environment and endangering public health through its single-use plastic bottles and wrappers. This lawsuit is among the first by a U.S. state to target a major plastics producer. In 2022 California announced an investigation into the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries' role in plastics pollution. These actions will set precedents for making producers and polluters pay for their negative environmental impact. 

Going forward with hope

As we work on a global plastic pollution agreement it's critical for everyone to commit to this important journey. It's not easy to balance the different views and priorities of countries, industries, and groups, but we encourage everyone to approach this challenge with optimism. It is a crucial step to the big changes needed to stop plastic pollution. 

Moving away from fossil fuels could have an impact on the plastics industry. So, it's important for negotiators to carefully think about what this means and how we can use this shift to reduce the production and use of plastics. This is a call to action to everyone – governments, businesses, schools, and communities – to join forces and address one of the most urgent challenges we face. Together, we can create a future that is more sustainable, resilient, and fair. Yes, it's possible!