A global treaty to end plastic pollution is in sight

November 22, 2023

The world is producing 430 million metric tons of plastic pollution every year and the vast majority is not recycled or reused.

Photo: Shutterstock

Plastics are indigestible by Mother Nature. Every single piece of plastic produced, if not incinerated or recycled, will outlive us by hundreds of years. 

We are producing 430 million metric tons of new plastics every year. And at this rate that will triple by 2060. Sixty percent of plastics have lifetimes of less than five years, and only nine percent have been recycled. Microplastics have penetrated human bodies, and polluted our water, air, and soil. 

Last week in Nairobi, the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution (INC) convened its third meeting with delegates from more than 160 countries and hundreds of observer organizations. Mandated by the United Nations Environmental Agency 5/14 resolution, the INC met previously in Uruguay and France, and will convene twice in the coming year to complete negotiations by the end of 2024. 

Life cycle approach

The draft included proposed provisions covering all stages of the plastic value chain, from primary plastic polymers to waste management. While member states unanimously agreed that we are facing a global plastic pollution crisis, and the actions needed to be taken to tackle plastic pollution with a life cycle approach, they disagreed about where the life cycle should start. 

The key issue is whether to reduce or restrict the production of primary plastic polymers. Some member states consider that the plastics life cycle starts with the production of primary plastic polymers. Capping the plastics polymer production can stop plastic pollution at its source. Others argue that plastics have played an important economic role, and that the treaty should not restrict plastics polymer production but focus on fighting pollution. 

Product design

The Zero Draft of the Plastics Treaty promotes better product design to reduce plastic use and improve recycling. 

Forty percent of plastics are used for packaging. Can we think of better design to reduce excessive packaging? Can we replace packaging with local, ecological materials? How can we reduce single use plastics?

One critical obstacle to plastic recycling is the large number of types and compositions of plastics. There are tens of thousands of chemicals and additives, making them difficult to separate, consolidate and process. Given the difficulty and high cost of collection and separation, there is a need to limit the types of additives and plastics. 

Extended producers’ responsibility

Member states generally agree on the principle of polluters paying, and the Zero Draft includes a provision on extended producers’ responsibility (EPR) “to establish and operate ERP systems to encourage increased recyclability, promote higher recycling rates, and enhance the accountability of producers and importers for safe and environmentally sound management, of plastics and plastic products throughout their life cycle and across international supply chains”. 

Producers have the best knowledge, capacity and technical expertise to make the most use of post-consumer products for reuse, recycling or disposal. They are also best positioned to produce environmentally sustainable products. Policies and economic and social incentives need to be developed to make producers more responsible for the environmental costs of their products, incentivizing change at the design stage.

The Zero Draft includes a provision to establish and operate the EPR to promote increased recyclability, and higher recycling rates, and enhance the accountability of producers and importers for safe and environmentally sound management of plastics and plastic products throughout their life cycle and across international supply chains.

A just transition

Member states seem to converge on the imperative to ensure just transition. The provision in the Zero Draft states that “each party shall promote and facilitate a fair, equitable and inclusive transition for affected populations, with special consideration for women and vulnerable groups, including children and youth.”

Some developing countries note that their economy and people employed in plastics industries will be affected by the treaty. There is a need to acknowledge the challenges of developing countries’ industrial transition as they seek to improve economic well-being and prosperity. 

Adhering to the key principle of Agenda 2030 “Leaving No One Behind”, member states noted the  role that informal waste pickers play in environmentally sound waste management. People working in informal waste sector are often the poorest of the urban poor, and they are often women, youth and people with disability with their livelihoods depending on collection of plastic and other recyclables. The world must recognize informal waste pickers’ services to reduce pollution and protect our environment, ensure healthy working conditions and compensate their work fairly.

Call for immediate action 

In the interview with UN News, Jyoti Mathur-Filipp, the Executive Secretary of the IINC said; “it’s time for everyone with a stake in the treaty to start looking at how it can be implemented”—a process she believes can begin even before the treaty is fully adopted and entered into force. 

Humility is required for the international community to recognize this. Nature cannot digest plastics and society cannot deal with vast plastic waste in the foreseeable future. While the world is expecting a legally binding instrument to regulate our relationship with plastics, we should not wait to take action. 

Launched in 2021, UNDP’s Plastics Offer advocates a whole-of-society approach that includes eliminating problematic non-essential single-use plastics promoting better product design and ecological alternatives, enhancing refill and reuse systems and other circular solutions including sound waste management 

For each citizen of planet Earth when offered with single use plastics, we must ask ourselves are they necessary? Are they essential to our well-being?

We might not be surprised to find that a lot of them are not!