Climate and Energy

Nations agree to draft plastic pollution treaty by end of 2023

After talks in Paris, delegates take important step towards a legally binding agreement to regulate plastic
<p>Plastic pollution on a beach in Colombia. A 2024 deadline has been set to finalise the UN’s plastics treaty, which will be the first global agreement to regulate the material (Image: © Martin Katz / Greenpeace)</p>

Plastic pollution on a beach in Colombia. A 2024 deadline has been set to finalise the UN’s plastics treaty, which will be the first global agreement to regulate the material (Image: © Martin Katz / Greenpeace)

Delegates from more than 170 countries have set a deadline for drafting the United Nations’ treaty to end plastic pollution, as negotiations in Paris came to a close on 2 June.

Observers have welcomed an important step for what will become the first global agreement to regulate plastic, with an initial draft to be developed ahead of a November meeting in Kenya.

The Paris talks laid out ambitious timelines for the treaty at a crucial moment, as countries face mounting waste problems on land and in the oceans, as well as growing concerns over human health issues linked to plastics and the chemicals used to make them.

Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme – who had told delegates at the opening of the meeting that “we are working against the clock, we must stop plastic pollution” – said that she was ultimately “encouraged by progress”, but urged states to “maintain this momentum”.

“The world is calling for an agreement that is broad, innovative, inclusive and transparent… and one that ensures support for developing nations,” Andersen said, pointing to a need for a systemic rethink of plastic design and usage that puts justice at its core.

Inger Andersen at podium
Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, speaking at a meeting in Paris, France on 27 May, ahead of the plastics treaty negotiations (Image: UNEP / Matthew Bannon, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Members of the International Negotiating Committee (INC) on plastic pollution will now have just over five months to produce the treaty’s first draft ahead of the Nairobi meeting, with nations having previously set the ambitious objective of signing a definitive and legally binding agreement by the end of 2024.

In just over half a century, plastics have become an almost ubiquitous presence in modern lives. They are cheap and have in many different ways improved livelihoods around the world, but the pollution caused by their waste is now impossible to ignore.

Global plastic production has increased from under 2 million tonnes in 1950 to nearly 400 million tonnes today. But less than 10% of plastic products are recycled, with vast quantities of waste ending up in landfill, incinerators or leaking into the environment.

According to a report published in May by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), about half of all plastic is used for short-lived or single-use products, most of which are consumed in high and upper-middle income countries, and which take hundreds of years to degrade.

“If we don’t take action right now, the situation is only going to get worse,” said Marco Lambertini, WWF Special Envoy, on the report’s release. “On our current trajectory, by 2040 global plastic production will double, plastic leakage into our oceans will triple and the total volume of plastic pollution in our oceans will quadruple. We cannot allow this to happen.”

Amid plastic’s proliferation, there are growing concerns not just for the health of the environment, but for humans too. A study from the Medical University of Vienna found that humans may be ingesting an average of 5 grams of microplastics per week – roughly the weight of a credit card – through food, air and water, causing adverse health conditions with long-term impacts that are still unknown.

Given the scale of this international problem, the upcoming plastic treaty has faced scrutiny from a number of observers who worry that it will lack the sufficient scope, ambition and stringent measures to tackle its various aspects.

A new paper by Chatham House and Global Water Partnership contends that while the plastics treaty will serve as a crucial tool for enhancing global plastic governance, a “Paris Agreement-style” international arrangement may fail to deliver, based on the lessons learned from climate negotiations.

“The treaty may not be able to address all the problems of plastic pollution, in which case the hard lifting will still need to be done by national governments,” said Niamh Brannigan, Global Water Partnership’s head of communications. She said its potential impact could be limited by, among other factors, a lack of reliable data on plastic pollution, as well as a “misalignment” of economic priorities and infrastructure in different countries.

Elsewhere, many observers have voiced concern over a focus on the recycling of plastics and waste management, rather than confronting ever-increasing production and promoting a reduction in use.

The treaty may not be able to address all the problems of plastic pollution
Niamh Brannigan, Global Water Partnership

In a 2021 paper, Tallash Kantai, a researcher at the Strathclyde Centre for Environmental Law and Governance at the University of Strathclyde, said that addressing plastic only when it becomes waste, and relying on recycling as a silver bullet, “could leave the world in a never-ending waste cycle”.

For Latin American countries, there has been a significant presence and role in the treaty discussions so far, led by Peruvian economist Gustavo Meza-Cuadra, who has served as chair for the INC on plastic pollution during its first two sessions. After the November meeting in Nairobi, the chairmanship is reportedly set to pass to Luis Vayas, Ecuador’s deputy foreign minister.

The treaty is expected to be signed while a Latin American or Caribbean country chairs the INC, according to Gonzalo Muñoz, a Chilean businessman and member of the INC secretariat, who has been a representative for Latin America during negotiations. He said this highlights the central position the region has played in the treaty’s process.

“There are countries that stand out for their presence in voice, in leadership in this matter,” said Muñoz. “Chile, Ecuador, and Colombia have historically had a level of progress in these matters.”