Highlights of the first plastic treaty negotiations and possible solutionsFeatured
On December 2, 2022, the first five-day meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC1) to develop a legally binding treaty on plastics concluded in Uruguay. The final version of the treaty text is scheduled to be drafted within the next two years.
Why do countries want to finalize the agreement on plastics as soon as possible and start fulfilling its requirements?
Humanity has already missed the moment to prevent or stop plastic pollution easily. The latest figures show that over 380 million tons of plastic are produced yearly, 50 percent of which is single-use plastic. Only 9 percent of the plastic manufactured is recycled, 12 percent is incinerated, and the rest accumulates in landfills and the environment.
Global trade facilitates the almost uncontrolled movement of plastic across national borders in the form of articles and waste, contributing significantly to plastic pollution.
Plastic accumulates in the food chain, contaminating water, soil, and air. Micro and nano plastics, plastic particles up to 5 millimeters, pose a great threat. Researchers found microplastics in human blood, lungs and placenta, fetuses, animal feed, milk, and meat products.
Numerous studies on the health effects of plastic have helped countries realize that plastic pollution is not only related to the volume of its production and the waste it generates. Over 10,000 chemicals have been found in plastics, at least a quarter of which are toxic to humans. Many of these are endocrine-disrupting substances. Even at very low concentrations, they can lead to severe illnesses, including cancer and cardiovascular, reproductive and endocrine system diseases. Such substances include, for example, brominated flame retardants, phthalates and bisphenols. According to a recent study, phthalates in plastics cause 100,000 deaths per year in the United States alone.
A multilateral environmental agreement already in place, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, regulates only a small number of plastic additives. However, the plastics treaty has the potential to restrict and ban not only individual substances but families of substances as well, accelerating the elimination of their use in the manufacture of plastics and plastic products and reducing the likelihood of regrettable substitutions.
It is important to emphasize that physical and chemical plastic pollution is a cumbersome burden on the most vulnerable groups. Among them are those working in factories manufacturing and processing plastics and plastic products and living close to oil refineries, waste dumps, or incinerators. It is safe to say that today the unresolved problem of plastic pollution throughout its lifecycle – from the extraction of hydrocarbon resources, production and consumption of plastic, and the handling of plastic waste – violates fundamental human rights, including the right to live in a healthy environment.
It became clear that individual countries cannot manage plastic pollution. Understanding the global nature of the problem and the importance of addressing it throughout the plastic lifecycle led to the adoption in March 2022 of the UN Environmental Assembly Resolution 5/14 “End plastic pollution: Towards an international legally
binding instrument”. Implementing the mandate of this resolution served as the basis for preparing a legally binding treaty on plastics.
Attempting to agree on the Rules of Procedure
It should not have been expected from the first meeting of the Negotiating Committee to agree and make fundamental decisions. Instead, it was an attempt to assess each other’s positions, listen to opponents’ opinions, try to agree on the rules of procedure, and discuss the observers’ role in developing the plastic agreement. But even these seemingly innocuous tasks provoked heated discussion. For example, the countries of Eastern Europe could not nominate a single candidate to represent the region in the INC Bureau. Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, and Estonia claimed the seat. The question is postponed until the next meeting.
To add on, the INC 1 delegates disagreed on the draft set of rules of procedure for the work of the Committee. The proposed Rule 37 on the right to vote became a matter of discussion. Several states raised concerns about whether the EU would have the right to vote on behalf of all 27 countries or only those accredited and directly present at the negotiations. A decision on this issue was deferred until the next INC meeting.
Directly related to Rule 37 is Rule 38 on Decision Making, which enshrines the possibility of putting issues to a vote during negotiations. Thus, the draft document says that “if all efforts to reach consensus have been exhausted and no agreement has been reached, the decision shall, as a last resort, be taken by a two-thirds majority of the representatives of Members who are present and voting.” Most likely, as long as there are unresolved issues related to voting rights in Rule 37, the INC cannot apply Rule 38, even if the other rules have been provisionally applied. In other words, it is doubtful that a vote will occur while there is bracketed text in Rule 37. In such a scenario, the plastic treaty could be unable to make decisions.
Moreover, several countries have said that the draft set of rules of procedure is not a final document, and not only Rule 37 but also Rule 38 could be subject to review. Thus, in the negotiations, several countries have already advocated changing the text of the first paragraph of Rule 38 in favour of making decisions only by consensus. A consensus vote would be a huge obstacle for all decisions to be taken by the INC in the future. Examples like the Rotterdam Convention demonstrate that a consensus vote is hindering urgently needed action.
Most countries have advocated active engagement with stakeholders, which include civil society, academia, business, indigenous peoples, and other groups participating in the negotiations as observers. Their expertise is essential for reaching common ground and developing an ambitious plastics treaty. Despite the statements favouring stakeholder participation, the regional meetings held during the negotiations were closed to observers, causing much controversy. Non-governmental organizations demanded access to regional meetings for all observers and space for meaningful discussions. The INC Chair promised to listen to all views and propose models that would ensure the active participation of stakeholders in the negotiations.
Issues that countries primarily focused on
Numerous interventions from countries showed concern about the growth of plastic pollution and its impact on human health, as well as the low ability of countries to address these issues. Various approaches were suggested:
- Ensuring monitoring of plastic production, exports, imports, waste generation, trade and handling;
- Stopping the production of problematic plastics that cannot be recycled, including single-use plastics;
- The need to address the impact of plastics on both the environment and human health;
- Stopping the production of plastics that contain toxic polymers and additives;
- Disclosure of information about the toxic substances in plastics, followed by restrictions and cessation of their use;
- Developing criteria for a plastic design that does not include hazardous polymers, additives, and other components;
- Promotion of materials that are alternatives to plastic;
- The importance of including control measures;
- The importance of preparing national action plans;
- Relevance of circular economy and recycling to reduce plastic pollution;
- The need to provide financial and technical assistance to developing countries;
- The need to ensure the participation of various stakeholders in the negotiations;
- The need to consider the most vulnerable groups, including workers, indigenous peoples, women, children;
- the importance of working with the scientific community to collect and analyze data on the health effects of plastics and the substances they contain.
Human rights and the plastic treaty
During the INC negotiations, a publication was released by the UN Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and waste. The paper focuses on critical human rights considerations while negotiating an international agreement on plastic pollution.
In particular, it emphasizes that the new treaty should protect human rights, including the right to health and a healthy environment. Similarly, procedural rights, including access to information about, for example, chemicals added to plastics and emitted during the production and destruction of plastics, are vital to the effectiveness and legality of any global agreement on plastics.
Where scientific evidence is not yet conclusive, the new treaty should provide for the application of the precautionary principle, requiring states to proceed cautiously to avoid steps that could harm human health or the environment.
Public participation in the development and implementation of plastic policy and in developing the new treaty, as well as access to remedies for harms caused by plastic, is also critical.
Disclosure of toxic substances in plastics as a basis for effective future treaty enforcement
During the discussions, it became clear that voluntary national approaches and initiatives by individual industry sectors and companies were insufficient to address complex issues of plastic chemical pollution, starting with transparency of information about chemicals in plastics.
Almost every economic sector uses plastic as one of the most important materials for manufacturing products, including construction materials, toys, textiles, and others. However, information about hazardous chemicals in plastics depends mainly on each company’s approach to disclosure and standards for chemical restriction. This approach is primarily based on the producing or importing countries’ national laws, which vary significantly. Some sectors have problems with disclosure, even within the supply chain.
Clearly, individual industry and government initiatives do not address the free movement of toxic substances in plastic worldwide and thus prove insufficient to solve the problem of plastic pollution.
Moreover, the lack of harmonized and legally binding requirements to disclose information on the chemical composition of plastics effectively nullifies countries’ efforts to develop a circular economy and recycle plastic waste, allowing the production of a secondary resource for new products already contaminated with toxic substances.
During the negotiations, many countries supported the need to disclose toxic substances in plastics. More than a dozen countries, including Armenia, Australia, Costa Rica, Fiji, Gabon, Georgia, Maldives, Micronesia, New Zealand, Peru, Panama, the Philippines, and Switzerland, made statements in favour of including chemical transparency requirements in the text of the plastic treaty. The Secretariat of the three chemical conventions (Stockholm, Basel, and Rotterdam) also emphasized the importance of information disclosure and monitoring plastics.
Countries noted that they would support a treaty encouraging information transparency throughout the supply chain regarding the type of plastics, additives, and chemicals. The need to explore the entire life cycle of plastics to disclose and prohibit toxic substances used in its production and recycling was also emphasized.
Accurate information about what substances are present in plastic materials and products is a prerequisite of treaty effective implementation. Such a position by countries resulted from the tremendous work done by nongovernmental organizations. In their speeches and informational materials, many have consistently emphasized the need to disclose toxic substances in plastics as the basis for a new plastic agreement.
No similar transparency requirement in existing international chemical conventions has led to serious problems. For example, substances banned under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants continue to circulate in the economy due to unknowingly processing waste containing them and making new goods from contaminated secondary resources.
The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal faces no less of a challenge. The new Plastic Waste Annexes allow the Basel Convention to regulate virtually all plastic waste by requiring its complete characterization. However, not a single batch of plastic waste can be adequately characterized as required by the Convention. Waste suppliers do not know what types of hazardous chemicals are present in plastic waste, as such information is not initially available for plastic articles. Thus, all current shipments of plastic waste do not meet the requirements of the Basel Convention.
On the eve of the INC1, a Call to countries to include a legally binding harmonized requirement to ensure disclosure of chemicals in plastics throughout their life cycle was signed by more than 70 non-governmental organizations. The document emphasizes that transparency about chemicals in plastics is a win-win situation for everyone: policymakers, consumers, businesses, recyclers, and the environment. Non-governmental organizations point out that only with transparency of information it is possible to guarantee the recycling of plastics and the development of a circular economy free of toxic substances.
How serious are the EECCA countries about the development of the new treaty?
The statements made by Armenia and Georgia at the INC1 confirm the importance of the new agreement for the region of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. For example, the representative of Armenia supported the need for mandatory and harmonized information transparency requirements for plastic chemicals and polymers, regulation of the production of disposable plastics and formation of microplastics, ensuring equal opportunities for countries to participate in the development of the treaty.
Georgia, speaking on behalf of the High Ambition Coalition to Stop Plastic Pollution, stressed that plastic pollution has a negative impact on ecosystems and human health. The increase in plastic production is alarming. National and regional approaches, as well as voluntary initiatives, are not sufficient to address plastic pollution. Mandatory requirements and control measures throughout the plastic lifecycle using the polluter pays and precautionary principles, creating a circular economy for plastic that protects the environment and human health while maintaining a waste hierarchy and environmentally sound waste management are necessary elements of a future plastic treaty. It is important to develop global sustainability criteria and standards for plastics, to ensure transparency of information on the chemical composition of plastics throughout their life cycle.
The position of non-governmental organizations
More than 100 representatives of non-governmental organizations from different countries participated in the work of the first INC. The petition, coordinated by BFFP, listing their demands, calls on governments to include progressive and binding targets in the plastic treaty. These targets aim to limit and significantly reduce primary plastic production, including measures on toxic chemicals, commensurate with the scale and severity of the plastic pollution crisis and consistent with planetary and environmental limits on pollution, climate change and biodiversity loss.
Non-governmental organizations stand for the plastics treaty to reject false solutions, such as using dangerous substitutes for toxic plastic additives and ineffective technical measures. Such measures include:
- Burning plastic.
- Chemical “recycling.”
- Converting waste to energy.
- Burning plastic waste in cement kilns.
- Dumping waste in landfills.
These schemes support the continued production of plastic at the expense of the climate, human health, and the environment.
The future treaty must respect human rights, recognizing the traditional knowledge and experience of indigenous peoples, local communities, waste pickers and informal recyclers in addressing the plastic crisis. In doing so, it should hold polluting corporations and plastic-producing countries accountable for the human rights, health, ecosystems and economic harms resulting from plastic production, use and disposal.
The treaty should address plastic pollution and waste and the health problems created by the chemicals in plastics as they are produced, used, recycled, discarded or incinerated as waste. The future treaty should manage plastic as a material filled with toxic chemicals. Publicly available, harmonized, legally binding requirements for transparency of chemicals in plastic materials and products throughout their lifecycle need to become the foundation of this global agreement that should prioritize human health and the right to live in a safe and healthy environment.