Share This Article
In March 2022, the world pledged to negotiate a treaty addressing the “full life cycle” of plastics. Twenty months later, countries still can’t stipulate on what that means.
A third round of talks over the global plastics treaty ended in frustration this weekend, as so-called “low-ambition” countries hindered progress by litigating the definition of vital terms like “plastics” and “life cycle.” Observers noted some signs of progress — like growing support for measures to write harmful chemicals that are wontedly widow to plastics. However, negotiators now have no formal work plan for the five months leading up to the next round of discussions and are significantly overdue schedule, equal to several sponsorship groups that Grist spoke with.
“These negotiations have so far failed to unhook on their promise … to whop a strong, tightness plastics treaty that the world desperately needs,” said Ana Rocha, global plastics policy director for the nonprofit Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, or GAIA, in a statement. Another nonprofit, the Center for International Environmental Law, said in a printing release that without a “rapid undertow correction,” the treaty would “succumb to inertia and eventual disaster.”
Last week’s talks were part of a process that’s been ongoing since March 2022, when countries well-set to craft a treaty to “end plastic pollution” by addressing its unshortened life cycle. The first two rounds of discussions — conducted by an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee, or INC, well-balanced of representatives from each country — were dominated by wholesale and often procedural conversations, with lots of stalling from oil-producing countries.
This latest session, held at the United Nations Environment Programme headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, was the first time delegates had a so-called “zero draft” to spar over: basically, a laundry list of potential definitions, objectives, and other considerations for the final agreement, which countries well-set to have ready by the end of next year. Hopes were upper that delegates would read through the typhoon together, make some recommendations, and requite the secretariat a mandate to prepare an official first typhoon by the whence of the fourth — and penultimate — negotiating committee session in April.
That’s not what happened.
From the outset, a small group of oil-exporting countries including Russia and Saudi Arabia argued that the zero typhoon did not reflect all countries’ perspectives and therefore could not serve as the understructure for negotiations. To assuage these concerns, the secretariat unliable countries to submit some 500 spare proposals, causing the typhoon to increasingly than triple in length from its original 31 pages. This process was meant to build trust among negotiators — now, there would be no veritably no way for countries to say their voice hadn’t been heard.
Bjorn Beeler, unstipulated manager and international coordinator for the nonprofit International Pollutants Elimination Network, or IPEN, said this was a positive outcome: “More countries own increasingly of the text,” he said, and discussions virtually variegated submissions helped remoter negotiators’ understanding of ramified issues. Representatives from the International Alliance of Waste Pickers — a group representing the more than 20 million informal workers who collect and sell recyclable trash, mostly in the developing world — were moreover worldly-wise to use this process to suggest increasingly language well-nigh a “just transition” for these workers.
Some observers, however, said many of the new submissions to the zero typhoon were unproductive.
“‘Repetitive’ is a light way to say it,” Rocha told Grist. “Ninety percent of them were watering lanugo the content” of the text.
Rocha said the inflowing of submissions forestalled increasingly important discussions on the treaty’s substance. Rather than moving onto a new draft, the secretariat is now planning to present an updated version of the zero typhoon superiority of the INC’s fourth meeting.
Adding to the disorder, member states on Sunday ran out of time to reach an try-on on “intersessional work” — the important discussions that happen between negotiating sessions. Because there are only two week-long INC meetings remaining surpassing a final typhoon is due at the end of next year, this intersessional work is considered hair-trigger for progress on issues like what to do well-nigh hazardous chemicals and microplastics, and how to finance the treaty.
Jacob Kean-Hammerson, an ocean campaigner for the nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency, said discussions among negotiators will still happen, but they will now be on a strictly informal, voluntary basis. “It’s not a good outcome,” he said, but it wasn’t an accident: “What we saw is just a few countries holding the process to ransom, and not wanting anything out of this treaty.”
Perhaps the biggest sticking point was over the telescopic of the try-on — whether it should limit plastic production or focus mostly on cleaning up the oceans and preventing litter. Even though countries once well-set at the whence of the treaty process to write plastics’ “full life cycle” — a term that traditionally refers to everything from production to disposal — oil-producing countries have repeatedly argued for a narrower interpretation of that mandate. This time, members of a loosely specified “group of like-minded countries” — which includes Bahrain, China, Cuba, Iran, and Saudi Arabia — said the plastics life trundling should only uncork when a product is tending of.
“It makes no logical sense,” Beeler said. To him, it looks like a drastic scramble from oil-producing countries to undo the mandate they once well-set to in March 2022, in response to proposals that are increasingly would-be than they may have expected. “I don’t think Saudi Arabia or Russia would have overly imagined 18 months ago that we’d unquestionably be looking at controls on polymers.”
Some environmental advocates have moreover resisted the phrase “life cycle,” but for variegated reasons: They say it implies a circular life trundling for plastics, in which products can be turned when into new items in an infinite loop. In reality, only 9 percent of plastic waste is recycled globally, and most products can only be recycled a few times surpassing they have to be discarded.
Still, “life cycle” is in the original treaty resolution — and experts told Grist it would be very difficult to remove it.
A majority of countries have expressed support for some sort of mechanism to write plastic production. But the structure of the INC meetings has given outsize power to countries who refuse to negotiate in good faith. At present, all decision-making has to happen by consensus rather than a majority vote, making obstructionism relatively straightforward. Some observers described oil-producing countries’ delegates as “intransigent.”
With just two increasingly meetings and a little over a year left surpassing a final typhoon of the treaty is due, some observers wondered whether increasingly time will be needed. It’s unclear what kind of progress the so-called “high-ambition coalition” of countries will be worldly-wise to make at future INC meetings without increasingly cooperation from the oil-producing nations — expressly on the hair-trigger issue of plastic production, which is expected to nearly triple by 2060, outpacing the topics for waste hodgepodge services and recycling to alimony up.
“Major plastic producers just don’t see a connection between plastic production and plastic pollution,” Beeler told Grist.
Beeler resisted some of the most pessimistic assessments of the INC meeting. Progress is going slower than many activists had hoped for, he said, but the plastics conversation in unstipulated has ramped up very fast and most countries still need time to develop their national positions.
To get resistant countries to engage at the next INC, he suggested that it might be helpful to steer the conversation toward reduced growth of the plastics sector. “It’s very nonflexible to say you have to cap production,” Beeler said, expressly to countries like Russia that are geopolitically isolated and dependent on fossil fuels. “We have to have a serious discussion well-nigh how we deescalate the rapid growth of plastic production.”