better waste management

International treaty against plastic pollution: what are the stakes of the negotiations

Pollution Issues

Plastic never disappears from ecosystems, it just becomes less visible by breaking up into microplastic particles. The first phase of negotiations to develop an international treaty against plastic pollution was recently held.

400 million. This is the number of tons of plastic produced on Earth each year. The vast majority of waste is deposited in landfills and then partly carried by rivers to the oceans, or buried, or burned in incinerators. To tackle the existing pollution but also to deal with this hemorrhage of plastic at the source, crucial negotiations went on.

What can we concretely expect from the future treaty? This is a historic opportunity, especially in a context where forecasts are for plastic production to triple or even quadruple by 2050, and a number of plastic waste that will exceed the number of fish in the oceans. Today, regulations on plastic exist in the form of fragments of fragmented and scattered texts, with measures taken State by State which prove to be insufficient. This treaty is the only hope that we can have to deal with the problem on a global scale.

Ambitious countries and others reluctant to take action against plastic pollution

This is actually the first of five phases of negotiations planned to achieve an international treaty by 2025. It’s the start of a long process, but the decisions taken this week will serve as a framework to the tools that will shape everything that is to come. They may seem boring and procedural, but they define the rules of the game that will make the treaty succeed or not.

This first cycle focuses first on organizing the negotiations by setting up working groups and agreeing on definitions. A far from trivial step: the definition of plastic – which will also determine the scope of the treaty – will be one of the issues that will pose problems in the negotiations, because they depend on the economic interests present in the different countries.

Indeed, some countries with significant petrochemical interests – such as the United States or the petro-nations of the Middle East, but also China – could slow down progress. It is against them that the members of the High Ambition Coalition, launched by Rwanda – which was the first country in Africa to ban plastic on its soil – will have to fight Norway. More than 50 countries have joined – more than a third of the countries participating in the negotiations – on all continents.

So, on what basis do these crucial negotiations start? The treaty will cover the entire life cycle of plastic (from the manufacture of the material to the final pollution) – and not only on the treatment of waste. But again, the devil will be in the details. There is no consensus on the regulation of production – that is to say the fact of restricting both the volume of plastic produced, and the number of chemical substances entering into its composition – nor on the fact of being interested in toxicity, or the necessity of specialized dumpster rentals.

A necessarily binding plastics treaty – but how much

Another point of agreement on which it will no longer be possible to back down: What has been recorded is that the treaty would be binding. However, saying this is not enough. Above all, we must go further than the Paris Agreement – which, although binding, is now showing its limits – and get as close as possible to the model of the Montreal, which has made it possible to fight effectively against the destruction of the ozone layer. It is important that the United States agree on a strong ambition of the treaty, to be declined with development plans. The treaty will also have to be equipped with a mechanism for transparency, reporting and monitoring of the various commitments in order to monitor and guarantee their implementation”.

The key question is how to organize decision-making in the future. If the Member States decide to work according to the unanimity approach, as has been the case in climate negotiations (in other words, any country can block any decision), the treaty will have low ambition and low enforcement capacity. Using majority voting, there is hope that we can have ambitious goals that can be implemented.

Beyond plastic pollution itself, it is above all the single use that poses a problem. Because by moving the single use of plastic to other materials such as paper or cardboard, we do not than creating other environmental problems. The challenge of this treaty is therefore to bring out another vision of packaging and uses. A point of view shared by the expert in waste-related issues at Surfrider Foundation Europe: this treaty is an opportunity to stimulate the creation of reuse systems, in particular for food and drink packaging (returnable glass bottles, washed and then re-filled.

Will the industry lobby influence decisions

The associations have already castigated the over-representation of the petrochemicals lobby during the preparatory meetings for the negotiations. On site, the Break Free From Plastic alliance pointed out that industry representatives were present on an equal footing with scientists and associations. It is certainly normal that these actors are present, but it is the proportion that questions, and the rise of dumpster rentals. Indeed, for the oil industry, plastic represents the future outlet for fossil fuels (oil) to replace fuels, in the era of the electric car. We are facing hyper-powerful lobbies. We will have to fight, it is essential.

For the moment, it is very unlikely that the plastics treaty will take into account the carbon budget available for the sector in the climate agreement. However, if we want to stay below the 1.5°C warming threshold agreed in the Paris agreement, we should push reuse and recycling to the maximum, while reducing the use of plastics by 75% here 2050. The measures that have the best chance of succeeding are measures based on the recycling of plastic because this does not call into question the industries present in the different countries.

A note of hope, however, came from a waste management expert (check his website) who announced to consider the negotiations in a logic of waste treatment hierarchy, that is to say by respecting the priority of the reduction of plastic compared to recycling. Let’s hope that this treaty will finally be an opportunity to transform the test.

In any case, while waiting for the treaty in 2025, the mandate of the INC (Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee) does not grant any of the stakeholders a two-year break. “Meanwhile, we will already have to take measures, and above all, not give in to the lobbies. Plastic never disappears, it just becomes smaller by breaking up into microplastic particle, therefore a reduction at the source is necessary, as well as better waste management practices.