A critical juncture for global plastics treaty

The world is witnessing a crucial phase in environmental diplomacy as the third weeklong round of negotiations to develop a global plastics treaty commences in Nairobi, Kenya. This meeting, attended by representatives from over 170 countries, follows a preparatory meeting and is part of a concerted effort by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to establish a legally binding framework to regulate plastic pollution globally.

Addressing the full life cycle

Central to the discussions is the pursuit of a comprehensive strategy that encompasses the entire lifecycle of plastics. This includes the production, design, and disposal of plastic materials. The U.N.’s website highlights the importance of this holistic approach, emphasising the need for integrated solutions that address each stage of the plastic cycle.

A framework for balancing production and waste management

Negotiators are working from a “zero draft” document, a foundational text outlining potential policies and actions. Andres Del Castillo, a senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law and an observer of the negotiations, noted that this phase is a pivotal moment in the treaty-making process.

One of the most contentious issues in the negotiations is whether to focus on limiting the production of plastics or to concentrate on the management of plastic waste. This debate is central to the treaty’s future direction and effectiveness.

Diverse stances and proposals

The European Union, Japan, Canada, Kenya, and several other countries advocate for a robust treaty with binding provisions. These provisions aim to reduce the production and use of virgin plastic polymers, especially those derived from petrochemicals, and to eliminate or restrict the use of problematic plastics, such as PVC and other toxic materials.

This stance, however, faces opposition from the plastic industry and oil and petrochemical exporters like Saudi Arabia. These parties argue for a focus on recycling and reusing plastics, promoting the concept of “circularity” in the plastics supply chain. Saudi Arabia, in its submission, highlighted that inefficient waste management is the root cause of plastic pollution.

In a significant move, Saudi Arabia launched the Global Coalition for Plastics Sustainability on Saturday, partnering with nations including Russia, Iran, Cuba, China, and Bahrain. This coalition advocates for the treaty to emphasise waste management over production controls.

The roadmap and timeline

The current meeting in Nairobi, spanning from November 13 to 19, is the third of five planned sessions. These negotiations are part of a fast-tracked process aiming for the treaty’s conclusion next year and adoption by mid-2025.

The alarming context of plastic pollution

Global plastic production has surged, more than doubling since the start of the century to 460 million tonnes. If unaddressed, this figure could triple by 2060. Alarmingly, only nine per cent of this massive production is currently recycled. The pervasive nature of plastic pollution is evident, with microplastics found everywhere from clouds to the deepest sea trenches and even within the human body.

The negotiations in Nairobi represent a critical juncture in the global fight against plastic pollution. The decisions made here will shape the future of plastic production, usage, and disposal, impacting the health of our planet and its inhabitants for generations to come.

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