Turning off the tap: What does the new UN plastic resolution intend to achieve?

26th May 2022

David Burrows considers the UN Environment Assembly’s draft resolution on ending plastic pollution, and its chances of success

In her book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, Susan Frankel writes that it’s “not always easy to see when a relationship is in trouble”, noting that plastic and humans have “been together for so long it’s difficult to imagine a different world”. However, on 2 March, environmental campaigners started to dream that such a world could exist.

The UN Environment Assembly cajoled 175 countries into agreeing to a legally binding global treaty on ending plastic pollution. The four-page draft resolution, ‘End Plastic Pollution: Towards an internationally legally binding instrument’, checks everything that was on the wishlists tucked under NGOs’ arms as they arrived in Nairobi, Kenya, for the February-March meeting.

The fact that the treaty references vulnerable and marginalised waste collectors, whose labour would form the backbone of a circular economy, is significant. So too is its mention of the health impacts associated with plastic – the concentration of chemicals and additives in plastic and other packaging is a growing concern. Another notable inclusion is the treaty’s desire to take a “full lifecycle approach” to tackling plastic pollution. The importance of considering everything, from production and design to waste prevention and management, was highlighted in reports by both the Nordic Council and the Environmental Investigation Agency when they started detailing what such a treaty might look like a couple of years ago.

Industry and NGO responses

Environmnental Investigation Agency ocean campaigner Tom Gammage calls the new agreement “remarkable”. To have all the asks in the draft resolution is “stunning”, adds Paula Chin, senior policy adviser (consumption) at WWF.

People who are on the ground, living the problem and facing these challenges day-to-day have been involved from the start – which represents a shift in the negotiating ecosystem. The focus could be as much on people as it is on waste, and that may keep developed nations, businesses and trade representatives in check as they attempt to sell silver-bullet solutions to the crisis and avoid the necessary system change.

Indeed, while NGOs are cock-a-hoop, industry is wary. Barry Turner from the British Plastics Federation is supportive of measures that will reduce the amount of plastic released into the environment, and is keen to see a “well-thought” and “science-based” approach to achieve this. Eric Greenberg, contributing editor at Packaging World, offered a more ominous reaction: “In short, uh-oh”.

His concern is that the agreement could result in a “supercharged version of anti-plastics measures of the type we’ve seen for years”. Ministers in the UK seem keen to live up to such prophesying. Those listening to International Environment Minister Lord Zac Goldsmith speak at a March webinar held by campaign group A Plastic Planet may have thought he was once again editor of The Ecologist, as he urged campaign groups to maintain pressure and dismissed the inevitable “squeals” from some sections of industry.

His words will encourage campaigners who see the treaty as an opportunity to “turn off the plastics tap”, as A Plastic Planet puts it – whether that’s the tap leaking plastic into oceans and soils or the tap linked to fossil fuel extraction.

A net-zero villain

In its report Breaking the plastic wave, Pew Charitable Trusts estimated that lifecycle plastic-related emissions will double from one gigatonne of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) in 2016 to 2.1GtCO2e by 2040, accounting for 19% of the total annual emissions budget required to limit global heating to 1.5°C. At present, it accounts for 3%.

In the third instalment of its Sixth Assessment Report, published in April, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) pointed to plastic’s “current <99% reliance on fossil feedstock, very low recycling, and high emissions from petrochemical processes”, which makes it a net-zero villain. It did note that plastic can also save emissions, for example in making cars lighter and thus cutting fuel consumption. However, as Carbon Brief noted in its Q&A on the IPCC report, the report also warned that “careful evaluation is needed from a life cycle perspective since some recycling activities may be energy- and emission-intensive, for example, chemical recycling of plastics”.

Production caps, bans and new targets are all possibilities, but the UN treaty (and contributing policies) must be science-led. The intergovernmental negotiating committee working on the treaty will consider “the best available science, traditional knowledge, knowledge of indigenous peoples and local knowledge systems”. This is encouraging.

Parallels with climate change are important when thinking about the shape and content of this new treaty, says Professor Chris Hilson, an environmental law expert at the University of Reading. “As with climate change, we have seen plastics denialism and scepticism face similar levels of misinformation,” he explains. “We need something like the plastics equivalent of the IPCC – an authoritative scientific advisory body that can advise on the science of plastics mitigation and harm, and one that is not just staffed by industry insiders but is truly independent like the IPCC.”

There is a feeling the UK could help lead this; some NGOs have praised the government for its interventions to keep the treaty water-tight as others looked to water it down. “What matters is what happens next,” said Goldsmith, adding that the UK government will be “at the forefront” of designing the treaty.

Goldsmith has talked of more “bullish” policies, but the government’s own ambitions to tackle plastic pollution have stumbled. A plastic packaging tax came into force in April, but policies such as extended producer responsibility for packaging and a deposit return scheme have been delayed. Implementation of bans on the most-littered single-use plastic items lags behind that of the EU, while a manifesto commitment to ban plastic waste exports to non-OECD countries has failed to materialise.

Fleshing out the details

Under the treaty, there will be national plans that could work similarly to the way Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) work for greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris Agreement – although, unlike the NDCs, they would

be legally binding. Better reporting on plastic will be key. “Monitoring of plastic in the environment is important and we need to be good at that,” explains Gammage. However, he continues, we also need to understand “what we have, what we’re producing, what we’re designing and what we have moving through the economy”.

Fiona Ross, environmental lawyer at Pinsent Masons, says the impact of the treaty and national plans will have to be monitored if they are to be effective. Given the ground covered, she thinks it’s unlikely there will be a single target on, say, plastic use. “I think there would have to be a range of targets,” she says.

The fact that it’s all rather vague means there is everything to play for. This scares plastic producers, as well as the fossil fuel companies that have become reliant on plastic demand. The oil industry wants to keep the world addicted to plastic, says Hilson, calling it “their plan B for when their fuel markets run out in the energy transition”. Production must be the focus, he adds. “We need a net zero for plastic.”

“Plastic is the oil industry’s plan B for when its fuel markets run out in the energy transition”

Two million tonnes of plastic were produced in 1950; in 2017, that figure was 348m tonnes, and this is expected to double by 2040. The draft resolution finally recognises that addressing plastics in the oceans and on land isn’t possible without intervening at the source.

David Azoulay, managing attorney at the Center for International Environment Law, believes it comes down to what happens in the next two years. “We’ve all seen how international processes can be derailed,” he said during A Plastic Planet’s webinar. However, he is “rather confident” about this treaty’s chance of delivering, saying that the momentum behind it gives him “a lot of hope”.

David Burrows is a freelance journalist and researcher.

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