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UN Reconvenes in Canada to Tackle Plastic Pollution

Apr 25 2024

The United Nations has convened once more in Ottawa, Canada, this week for the crucial fourth round of negotiations aimed at establishing the world's first-ever global plastics treaty. This series of talks, set against the backdrop of escalating global concern over plastic pollution, is a follow-up to the November session in Nairobi. As the process edges closer to the final meeting in December in South Korea, the stakes are high to forge substantive progress in Canada.

The Aims of the Treaty

In 2022, UN member countries reached a consensus on the urgent need for a binding agreement that would govern plastic production, usage, and recycling by the end of 2024. This ambitious timeline underscores the gravity of the global plastic crisis, which has seen plastic production and waste more than double between 2000 and 2019. Currently, the world produces approximately 400 million metric tons of plastic annually, of which less than 10% undergoes recycling. Projections suggest that without effective intervention through this treaty, plastic production could triple by 2060. A recent U.S. report from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory highlighted a daunting prospect: by 2050, the plastic industry could be responsible for up to 20% of global carbon emissions, up from 5% at present.

This treaty negotiation began with a blank slate approach, intending to foster open dialogue and innovative solutions. However, as the deadline approaches, it is evident that this lack of initial structure has allowed for divergent views on the treaty’s framework, complicating the consensus-building process.

Competing Interests

Diverse factions have emerged, each championing different priorities. The ‘High-Ambition Coalition’, which includes European Union members, Mexico, Australia, Japan, Rwanda, and recently Ukraine, advocates for a robust treaty that not only limits production but also mandates transparency and stringent controls over the chemicals used in plastic manufacturing, as reported by Reuters. The coalition argues the treaty should lay out global standards and targets rather than national action plans, with an ambitious goal to end plastic pollution by 2040.

This perspective is also supported by signatories of the ‘Business Coalition for a Plastics Treaty’, more than 200 large corporations including Unilever, PepsiCo, and Walmart. As stated by Unilever’s CEO, Hein Schumacher, “voluntary initiatives are not enough – that is clear. More interventions are needed across the entire plastics value chain, both upstream production and downstream waste management.”

The Business Coalition’s stance is also economically strategic. For companies, transitioning to recycled or recyclable plastics often comes at a higher cost, impacting their market competitiveness. A universal treaty would level the playing field, ensuring that companies already endorsing the treaty face the same operational conditions as their competitors.

Conversely, the 'Like-Minded Countries', including major players in plastics and petrochemical production like Saudi Arabia, China, and Iran, oppose production limits within the treaty, advocating instead for enhanced recycling initiatives and the development of new technologies to increase the circularity of the plastic supply chain. It is noteworthy among the members of this group that restrictions on plastic production would detrimentally impact their economies.

Industry Interests

The perspective of the 'Like-Minded Countries' is shared by industry groups in both the plastics and petrochemicals sectors, such as the International Council of Chemical Associations and the Global Partners for Plastics Circularity. ExxonMobil’s Head of Product Solutions, Karen McKee, articulated this sentiment to the Financial Times: “The issue is pollution. The issue is not plastic.”

With nearly half of all petrochemical demand driven by the plastics industry, and as global energy priorities shift towards renewables, the economic significance of plastics is set to increase for petrochemical manufacturers. Thus, the ongoing treaty discussions are not just about environmental policy but also about shaping the future economic landscape in which these industries operate. It is also worth noting that while the debate may appear as a battle between the environmentally-motivated and the economically-motivated, any cost implications on plastics which arise from the treaty will be most acutely felt by the lowest-income households. As the FT reported, a recent Oxford Economics report found “a cap on plastics production would push up prices and burden low-income households in addition to potentially increasing emissions”, though the report was sponsored by the International Council of Chemical Associations and its findings very much support the viewpoints of its sponsors.

Delegates in Ottawa face an uphill battle to reach a compromise which will appease the competing interests for the future of plastics. At this stage, a softening of stance from the competing factions to enable an agreement to be reached in Busan this December could be the best outcome from this week.

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