Wheels turning on the UN’s global plastic treaty

Eighteen months ago, 175 member states of the United Nations agreed to make a legally binding treaty on plastic pollution. Due at the end of 2024, the treaty will aim to tackle plastics at every point in the supply chain, from production to disposal.

Currently, upwards of 11 million tonnes of plastic flows into the ocean each year, and this number could almost double by 2040.

Two out of 5 Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) sessions, designed to develop the plastics treaty, have already passed. A third is due in Nairobi, Kenya in mid-November. The final 2 are scheduled in 2024.

The Chair of the INC, Gustavo Adolfo Meza-Cuadra Velasquez, has created a first draft of the treaty.

“I think it’s fair to say that most of us who are advocating for a strong, legally binding document are quite happy with what’s in it,” says Dr Tony Worby, Executive Director of Oceans at the Minderoo Foundation, which has submitted research and recommendations to the INC.

Worby is travelling to New York this week for discussions on the plastics treaty during the UN General Assembly.

But there’s plenty of time yet for the treaty to be changed and weakened. One of the things Minderoo is advocating for is a fee on virgin plastic production.

“The economics around plastic is all out of whack. As long as it remains cheaper to produce virgin polymer than it does to reuse, recycle, and upcycle plastic, then we’ve just got this impossible problem to solve,” says Worby.

Recycling and collection are insufficient for dealing with the plastic problem: halting production of new plastics from oil is the simplest and most effective way of reducing pollution.

“So, we believe very strongly that the imposition of a fee on virgin material will help address that economic imbalance.”

Such a fee could be used to invest in projects down the supply chain, like recycling, collection, and more responsible production.

“It also poses a whole lot of questions, like: who’s going to collect the money? Who’s going to manage the money? How would it be distributed? What’s the split between developed and developing countries? What is an acceptable use of the funds?” says Worby.

“We’re doing a whole lot of scenario modelling that will help inform those discussions and negotiations.”

This is one of the points where the treaty might be weakened.

“There’s some countries that are very supportive of this idea. There’s another group of countries – who are mostly oil producing and therefore plastic producing countries – that are dead against this idea,” says Worby.

“One of the challenges we’re going to be up against over the next 12-18 months is that those countries will do everything they can to water down the provisions in the treaty. So it’s our job to provide the research and the technical assistance and the input to the deliberations that can help each of the member states.”

Worby stresses that there are no “silver bullets” for the problem of plastic pollution. Work needs to be done in recycling and production as well.

“Companies need to commit to using recycled product in the plastics that they’re producing. Some companies are doing that voluntarily, but we think having regulations around minimum recycled content targets will be very helpful: so you can start with 30%, then you could increase to 50%, then you could increase to much more than that over time,” says Worby.

“By creating a demand for recycled content, you then change the economics around the collection and sorting so that you’ve got enough feedstock.”

And the plastics themselves are not the only problem: the substances added to plastics can cause damage too – to both environmental and human health.

“There’s about 10,000 different chemicals used in the manufacture of different plastics. We don’t know a lot about many of those chemicals. But what we do know about some of them is that they have a detrimental impact on long term human health,” says Worby.

“Phthalates, for example, are known to be endocrine disrupting chemicals.”

Untangling the effect of plastics and their additives on human health is difficult, because plastics are both very ubiquitous and often very difficult to measure or quantify – particularly if they’re microplastics or nanoplastics.

“The culmination of that work is clear policy asks through the global treaty negotiations around chemical regulation, and ensuring that dangerous chemicals removed from the production of chemicals in the first place,” says Worby.

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The Ultramarine project – focussing on research and innovation in our marine environments – is supported by Minderoo Foundation.

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