UN Plastics Treaty draft: Progress toward a plastic-free future?

Monday marked a significant milestone in the fight against plastic pollution. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) unveiled the first draft of a pioneering global treaty, designed to guide international efforts in combating plastic pollution up to 2040. With a pivotal meeting on the horizon in Nairobi this November, this revelation couldn’t come at a more opportune time.

A comprehensive approach to tackling plastic pollution

The draft mandates nations to aim for the prevention, progressive reduction and elimination of plastic pollution throughout the lifecycle of plastic. By endorsing a comprehensive strategy, the treaty emphasises addressing all phases of plastic’s lifecycle, ensuring that the efforts are holistic and far-reaching.

Key features of the draft

– Focus on harmful chemicals and hard-to-recycle plastics: While the draft does not propose specific numerical or time-bound targets, it emphasises the urgent need to phase out plastics with harmful chemicals and those that are difficult to recycle. 

– Potential bans on high-risk plastics: The draft doesn’t solely target single-use plastics. It brings attention to the equally concerning ‘short-lived’ plastics, suggesting global bans on the highest-risk among them.

– National plans and reporting: Drawing parallels with the operational model of the Paris Agreement on climate, the draft insists that nations devise and execute a national plan aligning with the treaty’s objectives. Furthermore, it urges nations to maintain transparency by regularly reporting their progress to the public.

– Detailed strategies for implementation

National plans should encapsulate:

  – Plastics phase-out schemes.

  – Measures prioritising human health.

  – Revamped product design and performance requirements.

  – Initiatives to magnify reuse and refill models.

  – Strategies to amplify product and packaging recycling, with an emphasis on extended producer responsibility (EPR) interventions.

  – Comprehensive management strategies for waste plastic fishing gear.

  – Robust plans to clean up existing plastic pollution.

A central body for the treaty

Once ratified, likely in 2024, the UNEP will establish a central body. This organisation will be pivotal in fostering collaboration among nations, ensuring the treaty’s objectives are met cohesively and efficiently.

Reactions from environmentalists

Reactions from environmentalists and activists were swift. Sam Chetan-Welsh, a senior policy advisor at Greenpeace, commended the draft for its nuanced approach. He lauded its inclusion of both “short-lived” and “single-use” plastics and its emphasis on regulating chemical groups, enabling a just transition, and promoting reuse. However, he also voiced concerns, “The devil will be in the detail – the most immediate fight will be whether we have a globally-binding treaty or an agreement full of loopholes so no one has to do anything.”

Marco Lambertini, WWF’s special envoy, termed the draft “a turning point in the negotiations.” He expressed his enthusiasm for the potential global bans on high-risk plastics and the mandate for updated product design standards in national plans.

The draft of the UN Plastics Treaty is undeniably a leap forward in the struggle against plastic pollution. As the world waits for government discussions at the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee’s (INC) November meeting, it is evident that the treaty has the potential to shape a future where plastics no longer mar our environment. Yet, as commentators have noted, the true impact of the treaty will be determined by its final form and the commitment of nations to uphold its tenets.


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