Make or break as delegates meet for another round of plastic pollution talks

The negotiating process was formally launched in 2022 at the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly

In Summary

•Since the 1950s, 9.2 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced, of which 7 billion tonnes have become waste, filling up landfills and polluting lakes, rivers, the soil, and the ocean. 

•Humanity now produces 430 million tonnes of plastic each year, two-thirds of which is contained in short-lived products which soon become waste.

Delegates during the official opening of the Third Session of the Inter-Governmental Negotiating Committee(INC) on ending plastic pollution at the United Nations Office in Nairobi on November 13, 2023
Delegates during the official opening of the Third Session of the Inter-Governmental Negotiating Committee(INC) on ending plastic pollution at the United Nations Office in Nairobi on November 13, 2023
Image: PCS

The latest round of discussions on a legally binding global instrument to end plastic pollution is scheduled to be held next week in Canada.

Delegates from 174 countries are set to attend the negotiations set to be held from April 23 to 29.

The meeting, also known as the Fourth Session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to develop an internationally legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment (INC-4), seeks to address challenges brought about by plastic pollution.

The next round of negotiations set to avail the legally binding instrument by the end of the year will take place even as a new analysis by the World Wide Fund for Nature-Kenya of states’ submissions to the treaty’s revised draft text shows that the majority of states support ambitious and legally binding global rules across the plastics lifecycle.

Despite overwhelming support for a binding global treaty, governments have faced continued pushback from a small group of states with more of an interest in protecting profit than people and the planet.

With only two rounds of negotiations remaining, what governments decide at the end of the week-long negotiations in Ottawa could make or break the treaty.

To get an effective treaty by the end of 2024, governments must now prioritize agreeing on the key measures that will have the biggest impact on plastic pollution—in particular, global bans on the most harmful and avoidable single-use plastics; binding, global requirements on product design and performance to ensure reduction, reuse, and safe recycling for all plastic products; and, to underpin it all, a robust financial package.

Fewer than 10 states want to see any such rules removed from the treaty’s final text.

Despite limited support for such a move, at previous rounds of negotiations, some of these states have managed to delay and upend proceedings, acting against the unanimous decision made in 2022 for a global instrument to end plastic pollution.

Negotiators heading into INC-4 must focus on creating the broadly supported global rules needed to end plastic pollution and not allow a handful of countries to stifle progress.

“INC-4 is make or break for this treaty, and we need to gain a lot of ground in quite a short period of time. Therefore, governments must urgently come together on the key global measures that will have the biggest impact on plastic pollution. They have the support of the room and the support of their citizens. They now need to make their combined ambitions a reality. Anything less at this stage in the negotiations would risk the implementation of a meaningful treaty and accelerate the plastic pollution crisis,” said Eirik Lindebjerg, Global Plastics Lead, WWF International.

Global, legally binding rules will not only level the playing field for countries and companies alike; they can also help scale solutions, spark innovation, and mobilize investments across the plastics value chain. They will also distribute the burden of addressing plastic pollution more fairly amongst states by ensuring plastic production, usage, disposal, and recycling decisions are more equitably addressed than they are now. Currently, the environmental, social, and economic costs of plastic throughout its life cycle are eight times higher for low- and middle-income countries than high-income countries.

So far, national and voluntary measures have proven ineffective in tackling the worsening plastic crisis. Continuing down this path would only exacerbate the issue and keep the burden of plastic pollution on low- and middle-income countries.

“Plastic pollution disproportionately burdens low- and middle-income countries, with the majority of the world’s waste either washing up on their shores or being imported to their territories. However, wealthier nations are not immune to the devastating impacts of plastic pollution on their communities. This widespread suffering underscores the urgent need for a global treaty with harmonised and binding global rules. Public surveys consistently demonstrate overwhelming support for such measures, reflecting a global populace weary of ineffective voluntary approaches. It's high time our leaders hear the unified voice of their constituents and translate it into decisive action," said Zaynab Sadan, Africa Regional Plastics Policy Advisor, WWF South Africa.

Recently, an IPSOS poll released by the WWF and the Plastic Free Foundation showed that 85 percent of people worldwide want a global ban on single-use plastic products.

Most of the products that pollute and damage our planet are single-use items. Many of these are unnecessary and need to be immediately banned or significantly phased down.

To account for and facilitate this shift, we need to utilize and invest in comprehensive reuse systems.

WWF’s latest Unpacking Reuse in the UN Plastics Treaty report highlights the five most promising product groups for reuse and gives guidance on how reuse can effectively be integrated into the treaty, unfolding its full potential as one of the most important levers of the circular economy to reduce plastic pollution.

With 60 percent of plastic waste derived from urban centres, cities are on the frontlines of the global plastic crisis.

Another WWF report, Case Studies from Asia: City-level Learnings for the Global Plastic Pollution Treaty, finds that cities, as the ultimate implementers of practical actions for plastic pollution, need global bans and requirements to provide them with the authority and resources to address challenges that are usually beyond their jurisdiction, and that can enable city-level solutions to scale.

Bans can also serve as catalysts for entire industries to prioritize research and development efforts towards reuse and refill solutions.

This, in turn, encourages increased investment in alternative distribution systems centered on refilling and reuse, ultimately fostering economic growth.

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