The EMF reacts to the latest UN Plastic Treaty negotiations


UN Plastic Treaty

Sarah Benton, senior writer at The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, analyses the latest round of UN Plastic Treaty negotiations and explains what progress has been made so far.

The clock is ticking, and the world is watching. Can we finally halt the flow of plastics into nature?

With just one round of negotiations remaining for a global plastics treaty, we’re urging Member States to redouble their efforts and raise their ambition levels to end plastic pollution. There’s no time to waste.

Water bottles. Toothpaste tubes. Food wrapping. Take away boxes. Coffee cups. Shopping bags. The one thing that unites plastics is their ubiquity.

Plastics are everywhere, including in the environment, with oceans and waterways often being the final resting place for much of the plastic that has ever been produced.

But rather than rest in peace, these plastics wreak havoc on wildlife and, through the water cycle, can even make their way into our blood.

In March 2022, Heads of State, Ministers of Environment, and other representatives from UN Member States finally said, enough is enough.

Plastic pollution
The fourth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution concluded last month.

Together, they adopted a historic resolution at the UN Environment Assembly to end plastic pollution through a legally binding global treaty.

This represents a once-in-a-generation chance to halt the flow of waste plastics into nature.

We know we can’t just recycle our way out of the plastic pollution crisis. To create a circular economy, we must reduce plastic production by eliminating the plastics we don’t need, scaling reuse and refill models, redesigning products that currently use plastic, and switching to alternative materials. 

So, at the close of the latest Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee, INC4, in Ottawa, Canada – the penultimate round of negotiations in this treaty’s journey to reality – we were encouraged by the progress made in streamlining and developing text around EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility), finance, problematic plastics, product design, reuse, and refill systems.

And equally, we welcome the decision to hold further discussions inter-sessionally on these and other important topics.

However, as tends to happen when bringing together various parties with different interests, needs, and capabilities, there was fragmentation and divergence in key areas. 

The greatest challenge, as we see it, is the divide between Member States supporting binding global rules and those preferring nationally determined measures. 

To create a level playing field and stimulate investment and innovation, we need rules that apply everywhere.

Plastic pollution is a global problem, so it needs a global solution. But these rules must be based on fairness and equity.

Not every country is beginning from the same starting point or with the same resources available to them. 

Eliminating plastic pollution is much more challenging in countries with economies in transition. With this in mind, we hope delegations continue to strengthen provisions around a just, equitable, and inclusive transition.

This will ensure there’s formalised support for institutional, scientific, technical, and financial assistance where it’s most needed. 

Plastic Ocean Pollution
We know we can’t just recycle our way out of the plastic pollution crisis, Benton writes.

Agreement was also lacking on whether and how to reduce virgin plastic production and use, with many States preferring better waste management and recycling. But tackling plastic waste after plastics have been produced is not going to be enough. 

If we continue with business-as-usual plastics production, our national waste management and recycling programmes will – before long – be overwhelmed, drowning in floods of plastic waste.

This treaty must cover the full life-cycle of plastics, across the value chain, and this already has broad business support.

The Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty believes that global rules are good for business.

And when more than 220 companies and organisations from across the plastics value chain want harmonised regulation to tackle the entire life-cycle of plastic products, Member States have good reason to act decisively.

However, members of the Business Coalition realise that while voluntary action is a good place to start, it will only take things so far.

They acknowledged that legally binding, globe-spanning rules are critical to tackling the monumental scale of plastic pollution.

We have no time to waste. As delegations continue discussions ahead of the final round of negotiations in the Republic of Korea this November, plastics continue to flow into our rivers, lakes, and seas. 

They continue to pile up in landfills, and the planet continues to warm, jeopardising our ability to limit global temperature rise to less than 1.5°C.

So, we are urging the delegations to redouble their efforts, to keep their ambition level high, and to ensure they consider the full life-cycle of plastics to secure a strong treaty outcome at INC5. 

We must eliminate the plastics we don’t need and circulate the plastics we do still need to ensure plastics never become waste or pollution.

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