As countries prepare to launch talks for a global plastics treaty in early 2022, a coalition of environmental groups, the European Union and developing nations kicked off a campaign Dec. 14 to build support for what they see as a more ambitious approach.
Advocates for a treaty, which has been likened to a Paris climate accord for plastics, say there’s broad agreement among many nations on the need for some sort of agreement.
But what’s still up for debate, they say, is how ambitious it should be.
Two competing proposals have emerged ahead of talks at the upcoming United Nations Environment Assembly in late February.
A proposal from Rwanda and Peru, and backed by the EU, calls for a broader pact that its supporters say would look at all phases of plastics design and production.
An alternate plan from Japan, however, more narrowly sees the treaty’s focus on ocean plastics and waste management.
A European Commission representative who spoke to the kickoff of the NGO campaign said the EC likes the Rwanda-Peru approach.
“We have been working very close with our like-minded countries to make sure that we mobilize as much support as possible for the Peru and Rwanda initiatives,” said Christoffer Back Vestli, international relations officer in the European Commission’s directorate general for the environment, speaking on a Dec. 14 webinar organized by the Center for International Environmental Law.
Luis Chuquihuara Chil, a senior Peruvian diplomat at the United Nations, said 45 countries are co-sponsoring his country’s resolution, including the 27 European Union member countries, the United Kingdom, India, Kenya, Chile, Ecuador and Colombia.
“We are expecting more countries to support this resolution in the coming days,” he said.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month formally put the U.S. government behind a treaty, in an address to diplomats at the headquarters of the U.N. Environment Program in Kenya.
He said he favored strong national action plans around plastic pollution and discussed concerns about microplastics in the food chain. But Blinken did not go into much detail on how a treaty would be structured.
Vestli, from the EC, agreed that countries should have flexibility with national action plans but said the treaty should set global targets.
One environmental group supporting the Rwanda-Peru plan, the International Pollutants Elimination Network, said on the CIEL webinar that more than 150 governments have voiced some level of support for a plastics treaty.
“We know there’s already an overwhelming support for the treaty on plastics,” said Vito Buonsante, IPEN’s policy and technical adviser. “The question is not to convince governments that a treaty is needed, but… what kind of treaty do we need.”
“If we look at a treaty that is only looking at plastic litter, that will almost certainly serve the status quo and continue to produce as much plastic,” he said. “IPEN’s view is that the overarching goal of the treaty should really be to eliminate the toxic impacts of plastics throughout their life cycle.”
The American Chemistry Council, which in September formally endorsed a treaty, said it is monitoring the discussions closely.
In a Dec. 16 statement, ACC’s plastics division suggested the Japanese proposal is better, and said it hopes any formal resolution the U.N. meeting adopts will consider a five-point plan ACC released earlier this year.
“Such a resolution should not pre-judge the outcome of an intergovernmental negotiating committee (INC), and there are concerns the proposal from Rwanda and Peru does just that,” said ACC spokesman Matthew Kastner. “Japan’s proposal leaves most of the decisions to the INC to encourage participation by a wide range of governments — which is important to negotiating a successful agreement.”
ACC’s plan calls for governments to agree to eliminate plastics waste leaking into the environment by a set date, increase waste collection, support chemical recycling and recognize the role of plastics in moving to a low carbon economy, including comparing the impact of plastics to other materials.
It also calls for innovation in packaging design and globally standardized ways to measure plastic waste.
“ACC believes there is significant opportunity for a U.N. treaty to foster and scale progress by the private sector to accelerate a circular economy and end plastic waste in the environment,” Kastner said.
A summary of the two resolutions distributed by CIEL, which supports the Peru and Rwanda plan, said both it and the Japanese proposal call for quick negotiations and a legally binding treaty.
But the Rwanda-Peru proposal gives negotiators more flexibility, a so-called “open mandate,” in what the final treaty can include, while the Japanese proposal is a “closed mandate” with more limits on what the INC diplomats can consider, CIEL said.
Jane Patton, the CIEL’s campaigns manager for plastics and petrochemicals, said negotiators need to consider impacts of rising plastics production and emissions, as well as health and climate impacts.
“If the resolution that comes out of UNEA stays focused on plastics in the marine environment, we are not going to solve this problem,” she said. “It’s not a good use of anybody’s time to spend two or three years negotiating a treaty that’s only going to address a tiny portion of the problem.”
Vestli, from the European Commission, said the EC wants the treaty to mirror the European Green Deal and EU plastics legislation and look upstream at impacts.
“We have taken measures to address plastics by its source,” he said. “We see that design and measures in the upstream part of the life cycle of plastics are particularly important because 80 percent of the environmental footprint is determined in that phase of the life cycle.”