A summary of what happened in Nairobi in the plastics negotiations

A summary of what happened in Nairobi in the plastics negotiations


The third session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment (INC-3) concluded in Nairobi on November 19.

At the beginning of INC-3, the Preliminary Draft was a balanced document reflecting different points of view and providing a basis for negotiations among Member States.

A coalition of “highly ambitious” governments, led by Rwanda and Norway, hoped to tackle plastic pollution by 2040 through a treaty guaranteeing life-cycle measures for plastic, including reducing production and limiting toxic chemicals used in plastic production.

However, as a result of negotiations at INC 3, the Preliminary Draft Treaty more than tripled in size and included a significant number of provisions on ‘national priorities’ and ‘national circumstances’ that could lead to a predominance of voluntary measures over legally binding ones – a failed approach to international environmental policy, as evidenced by the failure to meet the objective of the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM).

Furthermore, the “bottom-up” approach promoted by some countries is not conducive to a robust, ambitious instrument either, as it reverses the original mandate of Resolution 14 adopted at UNEA 5 in February 2021. According to this mandate, the future treaty should cover the entire life cycle of plastic, including its production, design and disposal. However, the so-called “bottom-up” approach calls for a focus solely on waste management, arguing that the problem of plastic pollution is not the extraction of raw materials and the production of virgin polymers and plastic itself but its disposal. Proponents of this approach demanded that the issue of raw material extraction for plastic production be excluded from the concept of the plastics’ life cycle and that different approaches be focused on to solve plastic waste problems.

The main debates centred on the following areas:

  • Should the new agreement include the issue of reducing plastic production or focus on recycling?
  • Will the plastics treaty primarily address the issues of plastic circularity and plastic reuse? The International Council of Chemical Associations, for example, hopes that the agreement will set requirements for governments to adopt circularity targets as part of their national action plans;
  • How will plastic and plastic waste trade issues relate to WTO and the Basel Convention requirements?
  • The plastic treaty must not duplicate existing international environmental agreements. How to ensure that?
  • Should the disclosure of toxic substances in plastic and traceability of this information in plastic materials and products be addressed at the country level, or should globally harmonized provisions be developed requiring countries to adjust their legislation in line with international standards?
  • What would be the impact of requiring disclosure of the chemical composition of plastic products and traceability of such information in goods on trade between countries, and what would be the impact of such a decision on the countries’ economic development?
  • What is the role of the scientific committee to be established under the treaty? Will it not duplicate similar committees under the Stockholm and Rotterdam conventions? The Nov. 11 letter from a group of scientists calls for a more formal process for including scientific data in the treaty. It also asks for a scientific body, similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that would provide regular updates to negotiators and policymakers on scientific evidence related to plastic pollution. This body would, for example, evaluate new research to help update targets and the list of chemicals of concern in plastics.
  • Should human rights and environmental and social justice be central to the future agreement?

Possible topics for intersessional work between now and mid-April 2024, when the fourth session (INC-4) begins, were also discussed. The following proposals were put forward for consideration by delegates:

  • chemicals and polymers of concern
  • problematic and avoidable plastic products, including short-lived and single-use plastic products and intentionally added microplastics
  • primary plastic polymers
  • product design and performance / circularity of plastics
  • waste management, including plastic legacy
  • extended producer responsibility schemes
  • fishing and aquaculture gear
  • downstream countries.

Despite the desire of many countries to start intersessional work, delegates were not able to agree on its format: whether it would work only at the level of various expert committees or whether it would also involve country representatives, experts and other interested groups; whether the meetings would be online, face-to-face or in a hybrid format. Also unresolved was the question of what status the documents developed during the intersessional process would have – whether they would form the basis of negotiations at INC 4 or be in the list of other information documents for the upcoming INCs.

During the week, delegates worked in three contact groups that addressed the following issues:

  • Technical and regulatory elements of the Zero Draft (Contact Group 1 – CG1 )
  • Modalities and means of implementation of the future treaty (CG2)
  • Institutional arrangements and general and final provisions (CG 3)

The suggestions made during the discussion were subsequently incorporated into the final reports of each contact group as various options. On the last two days of INC 3, delegates paid particular attention to whether the secretariat managed to take all their suggestions into account and correctly incorporate them into the draft outcome documents.

Several country representatives expressed support for the proposal that the Chair should be entrusted with preparing a first draft of a new preliminary text of the future treaty based on the discussion at the current session for consideration at the fourth session of the Committee.

Delegates also heard from representatives of Canada and the Republic of Korea, the host countries, for the next INC meetings in 2024. The INC-4 meeting will last seven days in Ottawa, Canada, from April 21 to 30, 2024. Ecuador, Senegal, Peru and Rwanda are interested in hosting the Diplomatic Conference on Plastic Pollution in 2025.

The documents discussed at INC 3, including proposals submitted by countries on various agenda items, are available on the UNEP INC 3 website.

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Written by Olga Speranskaya