A step towards ending plastic pollution by 2040

June 12, 2023

The equivalent of one garbage truck of plastics is dumped into the ocean every minute.

Paris, just the mention of it, melts people’s hearts. Renowned for its art, culture, food and fashion, Paris is above all known as the capital city of romance, associated with love and dreams. 

It is with a spirit of high hope that 169 UN member states and hundreds of observers recently gathered in Paris to participate in the second session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-2) to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment.

Despite the obstacles of disagreeing on the rules of procedures in the first two days, member states moved forward the negotiation on substantive matters, and considered extensively the 12 potential core obligations consolidated by the INC secretariat based on the written submissions from member states. These potential core obligations are consistent with a comprehensive approach that addresses the full life cycle of plastics. 

The twelve core obligations can be grouped into three categories along the entire life cycle of plastics: 

  • Upstream solutions that focus on phasing out or reducing the supply of, demand for or use of primary plastic polymers, problematic and avoidable plastic products, and chemicals and polymers of concerns, as well as microplastics.
  • Midstream solutions that foster design for circularity; encourage the reduction, reuse and repair of plastic products and packaging, and promote the use of safe and sustainable alternatives and substitutes.
  • Downstream solutions that strengthen waste management, elimination of release and emissions of plastics to water, soil and air, address existing plastic pollution already in the environment, facilitate a just transition and protect human health.

No one denies the importance of strengthening waste management (downstream solutions) and even there was not much contention on midstream solutions (design for circularity). The key question is how to stop plastic pollution at its sources, including production reduction and control measures.

The single one most critical issue in dispute is whether to put a target to phase out or reduce plastic production and consumption in the form of primary plastics, problematic and avoidable plastics, and harmful chemicals and polymers. According to the OECD, 460 million metric tons of plastics were used in 2019, equivalent to 45,500 Eiffel Towers. If business continues as usual, this will triple by 2060. Less than nine percent of plastics are recycled, and even when they are, evidence is emerging that they downgrade and can carry toxins and harmful substances. As Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director, put it in her opening remarks at the meeting: “We cannot recycle out of this problem.” While environmental groups and a large number of countries consider reducing production is the most effective measure to address plastic pollution at the source, other countries including some major countries of plastics production and consumption are not yet ready to take the position to reduce production.

After long hours of negotiations over the week, member states converged on the urgency to deal with plastic pollution happening right in front of our eyes with significant perverse impact on health and environment. According to UNEP, more than 13,000 chemicals are used in plastic production of which 3,200 of them are of concern. 

Member states pulled out a major milestone achievement. They agreed to request the chair, with the support of the secretariat, to prepare a zero-draft text of the international legally binding instrument for consideration at the next INC session, scheduled to take place in this coming November in Nairobi. Some key highlights include:

  • Many delegates highlighted the importance of transparency in disclosure of additives and chemicals in plastics
  • A cautionary approach has been cited by many as a guiding principle to negotiate the agreement 
  • A call for just transition, including an inclusive transition for informal waste sector, has been echoed by many delegates

It is most encouraging to note that a large number of member states, including a major group called High Ambition Coalition consisting of some 58 members led by Norway and Rwanda, have proposed a timeframe to end plastic pollution by 2040. However, given the statements made by some countries and with the challenges around the rules of procedure, it might be difficult to have the reduction of primary plastics as a concrete target agreed upon before the end of 2024. 

While the global negotiation process is making steady progress, we should not wait for a treaty to act. We cannot afford to wait. One garbage truck of plastic waste is dumped into our ocean every minute. UNDP firmly stands behind UNEA 5/14 resolution and commits to accelerate whole-of-society actions to fight against plastic pollution and reduce the production and consumption of problematic non-essential single use plastics through policy support, innovation, financing and behaviour change.

The time to act is now.