World Leaders Agree on Major Step Toward Treaty to End Plastic Pollution

Everyone seems to be happy with the agreement signed in Nairobi. That's a problem.

Dandora rubbish dump, Nairobi
Dandora rubbish dump, Nairobi.

Jan Hetfleisch / Getty Images

The United Nations Environment Assembly recently met in Nairobi, Kenya for the UNEA5.2 conference and agreed to develop a global treaty on plastics. Titled "End plastic pollution: Towards an international legally binding instrument," the document has everybody excited.

“This will go down in history as the day when the world put aside its differences to decisively address the pollution caused by plastics throughout their life cycles," said Christina Dixon of the Environmental Investigation Agency in the press release.

Dianna Cohen of the Plastic Pollution Coalition called it a "historic achievement." Joanne Green of Tearfund said, “The launch of negotiations for a global UN plastics treaty is a historic moment in the fight against plastic pollution. Today marks the first step towards justice for communities impacted by the burning and dumping of plastic waste." 

This was a surprise ending given that, according to The Financial Times, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), home to all the petrochemical companies that make plastic from fossil fuels, had backed a proposal from Japan—titled "Draft Resolution on an international legally binding instrument on marine plastic pollution"—that focused just on cleaning up plastic waste in oceans and ignored issues of plastic production on land.

Instead, the proposal submitted by Peru and Rwanda, titled "Draft resolution on an internationally legally binding instrument on plastic pollution," with the keywords "legally binding" in and "marine plastic" out. According to the final draft:

"The intergovernmental negotiating committee is to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment henceforth referred to as the instrument, which could include both binding and voluntary approaches, based on a comprehensive approach that addresses the full lifecycle of plastic."

Surprisingly, even the ACC is cheering about this agreement.

"For the first time the international community has agreed on a framework to develop a legally binding treaty to end plastics in our environment. That’s great news," said Joshua Baca, vice president of ACC's plastics division. "America’s plastic makers welcome the resolution because it will accelerate a circular economy in which plastics are reused instead of discarded. It’s ambitious – winning will mean the end of plastics in our environment. But we believe this is a game we all can win."

The ACC says: "We urge all governments involved to focus on negotiating a treaty that leads to circular solutions that work, beginning with universal access to waste management and recycling." In other words, it wants to keep making plastics and have the responsibility fall once again on governments picking the stuff up and "advanced technologies to recycle more of the 90% of plastics that don’t get recycled" like those "circular" chemical recycling processes that don't yet work or cost many times as much as virgin plastics.

Notwithstanding headlines like "Countries agree to end plastic pollution in ambitious global treaty," there was no treaty signed in Nairobi. There was instead the start of a 2-year process to work out a treaty. As Christina Dixon noted, "Yet far from being over, the work is just beginning. We have two years to negotiate an entirely new treaty – an ambitious timeframe – and a powerful plastics and petrochemical lobby will fight it all the way."

Everyone seemed so cheerful and happy with the outcome, even the ACC, which makes me nervous–one rarely sees such unanimity. According to Reuters, Stewart Harris of the ACC is "very pleased" with the deal because it lets countries come up with their own solutions, and he says the ACC doesn't intend to support caps on plastic production. Yet also in Reuters, Anne Aittomaki, the strategic director of Danish NGO Plastic Change said, "This question of plastic production is going to be a minefield. I think people don't know what they have signed up for."

Treehugger reached out to Aittomaki, who responded with an explanation of what is really going on here, and why it was such a victory.

"Going into UNEA5.2 a lot was at stake, the main sticking points were whether any agreement would be legally binding or voluntary, and if it would address plastic production and single-use packaging design or be confined to improving waste management and recycling, and marine/ocean pollution. Obviously, the NGO community were there and advocating for the Rwanda/Peru draft resolution which is the direction we have been pushing since UNEA4. The ACC, PlasticsEurope, and other industry stakeholders were also at UNEA5.2 lobbying for the Japan draft resolution to keep the focus on waste management and pollution. The fact and in spite of the massive lobby work by the aforementioned industries the Rwanda/Peru merged with the Japan draft resolution was agreed - and this is a setback for powerful oil and chemicals companies that manufacture plastic and had been working behind the scenes in an effort to keep talks focused on waste."

Aittomaki tells Treehugger the ACC and petrochemical companies are celebrating the outcome because "it is the only thing they can do due to public pressure but they are going to ramp up their efforts to ensure that production restrictions will not be included in the final treaty text." She outlined the priorities for a treaty that Plastic Change and many other organizations are going to be pushing for, as listed by Gaia:

  • The treaty should cover all plastic pollution, in any environment or ecosystem. This is an important broadening of the mandate from early concepts of “marine plastics” which would have severely limited the scope and impact of the treaty.
  • The treaty will be legally binding. Voluntary actions can complement mandatory actions, but not replace them.  
  • The treaty will consider the full lifecycle of plastic, from the wellhead where oil and gas are extracted, through its production and consumption, to post-consumer waste.
  • The treaty will be accompanied by financial and technical support, including a scientific body to advise it, and the possibility of a dedicated global fund – the details have been left to the treaty negotiation process. 
  • The mandate is “open." This means the negotiators may add in new topics they see relevant. This is important to bring in issues that were not debated or given short shrift in the current negotiations, like climate, toxics, and health. 

Aittomaki is right: This will be a minefield. It will be interesting to see if those ACC types will be still be smiling or whether the U.S. signs the treaty at all, given that American companies are investing $180 billion in new cracking facilities to make 40% more plastic than they do now. It will be an interesting two years.

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