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The World Is Inching Slowly and Chaotically Towards a New Plastics Treaty

A zhuzhed-up explanation of the international plastics treaty negotiations you definitely didn't pay attention to this week.

Plastic bottles and the Eiffel Tower.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Let’s just admit it: The INC-2 has a pizzazz problem. For one thing, if you’re not in the know, its name could easily be mistaken for the model number of a large kitchen appliance. Even if you are in the know, it’s difficult to get excited about what is “the second of five U.N. Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for Plastics meetings” — even if this one did take place in Paris.

But what the INC-2 lacks in, shall we say, broadpublic interest appeal, it makes up for in importance, compelling characters, and drama. Yes, I said it: drama!

Here’s everything you need to know about this week’s INC-2 negotiations, which concluded on Friday and have the ultimate aim of creating a first-of-its-kind legally binding global plastics treaty.

INC-ing Out Loud

What are the negotiations about?

This week, over 2,000 participants from 175 countries flocked to the UNESCO headquarters in Paris to debate, lobby, demonstrate, observe, sing, make art, and generally get very little sleep. For many attendees, it was a reunion of sorts: The first Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee meeting (INC-1) was held six months ago in Uruguay; the next, INC-3, will take place in Kenya in November.

Why such a frenetic, globe-trotting schedule? Because the delegates only have until the end of 2024 — technically, just 15 more total negotiating days — to hammer out the specifics of the first international plastic pollution treaty, as directed by the U.N. Environment Assembly last year. If they’re successful, the treaty will be the most important international environmental agreement since the Paris Climate Agreement was signed in 2015.

It’s a complicated subject. Campaigns against things like plastic straws and takeout bags have come to be seen by some U.S. activists as distractions, while others have defended plastics’ enormous lifesaving upsides and the fact that a like-for-like replacement of everyday plastics with paper bags could, counterintuitively, skyrocket global emissions (fun fact: the single-use plastic bag was invented as an environmentally friendly alternative to cutting down trees).

But the INC delegates aren’t trying to get rid of plastics altogether, just reduce their use. The U.N. cites data that shows over a third of all plastics are used for “gratuitous” purposes like packaging, including food and beverage containers, which overwhelmingly end up in landfills. Cutting down on wasteful packaging while promoting recyclable and reusable goods could slash 80% of plastic pollution by 2040.

Unfortunately, the world’s plastic problem is only getting worse. Emissions from the making of plastics alone are expected to outpace coal emissions within the decade. By 2040, U.N. projections show conventional plastics, which are made using newly extracted fossil fuels and thus a major part of oil companies’ plans for surviving the energy transition, taking up a whopping 19% of the global carbon budget. And by 2060, the 139 million metric tons of plastic we produce every year could triple unless the world makes changes.

Anti-plastic activists, scientists, and a 55-country bloc of negotiators led by Rwanda and Norway that calls itself the “High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution” are pushing for caps on plastic production. Their argument is that cutting off plastics at the source is the only way to turn off the proverbial “tap” of pollution created during the “full lifecycle” of a plastic item, from the extraction of oil to make it, the energy required to shape it, and its eventual disposal in a landfill or recycling plant. Others are pushing to regulate what chemicals can be used to make plastics. And though it seems far less realistically achievable, a ban on single-use plastics has also been floated, including by the 14-nation Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS) group.

U.S. Against Them

What are the sides?

The plastic treaty negotiations are breaking into three distinct camps, which I’ll call the “One Big Pledge” group, the “Bespoke Pledges” group, and “Saudi Arabia,” because it’s just Saudi Arabia.

The One Big Pledge group — primarily made up of the members of the 55-country High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution — wants an international, legally binding treaty that will “end plastic pollution by 2040” — however that target may be ultimately defined — by capping new plastic production at a “sustainable level,” likely by targeting single-use plastics; limiting the chemicals that can be used in the creation of plastics in order to reduce health hazards and encourage recyclability; and establish provisions for plastics at the end of their life to maximize reuse rather than leakage into the environment.

In a bit of pre-meeting drama, Japan ditched America to join the High Ambition Coalition, leaving the U.S. as “the only major developed country” that isn’t part of the group. High Ambition Coalition members also include Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and Mexico.

The “Bespoke Pledges” group wants to take what The Washington Post calls a “less stringent” approach by letting countries “come up with their own pledges” — kind of like a children’s arts-and-craft project fair where everyone gets to make their own popsicle stick man, except instead of a popsicle stick man it’s a commitment to ending pollution and there are no penalties if yours sucks.

Some Democrats and assorted celebrities have protested that this approach is kind of lame, but the Biden administration is nevertheless pitching it as being more like the Paris Climate Agreement (which, of course, was notorious among activists for this very aspect of its structure). The U.S. is also insisting that it is being “just as ambitious” as the High Ambition Coalition even as others have deemed its position rather “underwhelming.” Hey, at least the American Chemistry Council likes it?

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia thinks the American plan of “come up with your own pledge and don’t worry about an enforcement mechanism” sounds basically great, but it could go for an even more hands-off treaty, too. Its proposal lists just two suggested “obligations” for signatories: “designing [plastics] for circularity” when possible and agreeing to share recycling tips with other countries.

RRRules of the Game

What are the obstacles?

For delegates, activists, and industry interests departing Paris this weekend, there was a distinct air of anxiety about how much work still lies ahead. Part of the issue was that negotiations in Paris got off to a slow — the rumor in the refillable water bottle fountain line is that it was an intentionally slow — start.

The biggest reason for the delay was an extended debate over the draft rules of procedure. First there was a kerfuffle about how voting blocs like the EU can cast votes on behalf of their member states. But that discussion gave some oil-producing countries like Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and Iran an opening to try to revise the rules in a much bigger way: requiring decisions to ultimately have a consensus rather than be put to a vote.

The distinction between “voting” and “consensus,” while procedurally in the weeds, is actually a significant one. As the rule is written now, if consensus is not achieved, decisions then go to a vote, which must pass with two-thirds support. Countries that supported the change included Brazil, China, Saudi Arabia, India, Iran, Russia, and Venezuela; countries that backed voting as a final option included the U.S., EU, U.K., Canada, Norway, and Senegal, whose delegate explained the issue succinctly and to applause: “Consensus is what kills democracy,” he was reported as saying. “If one or two countries don’t agree, we’re stuck.” Without the option to vote, it’s likely any meaningful plastics treaty will be DOA.

Meanwhile, Mexico’s delegate, Camila Zepeda, was losing her patience at this point: “It’s a waste of time and energy ... We’ve heard arguments at length [that] don’t focus on the essential issue, plastic pollution,” she reportedly said. “Everyone, turn off your microphones, stop your speeches.”

But if it was the intent of major oil-producing states to delay negotiations, it worked. After agreeing to disagree about the rule on Wednesday — essentially kicking the can down the road to INC-3 — states like Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Iran continued to raise questions that seemed designed to run out the clock (the Iranian delegate’s concern about observing a reasonable bedtime, at least, was relatable). Mexico’s delegate finally snapped, waving her name placard above her head, scolding her colleagues that it was time to “roll up your sleeves and get to work,” and then grabbed her backpack and walked out of the room:

Attention then turned to what will likely be a crux of negotiations: the role of recycling and “circularity” in the eventual treaty. Anti-plastic activists are gunning hard for the first of the three classic R’s: to reduce the amount of plastic that gets made, period. Oil and chemical interests, though, wanted to focus on the third R: recycling.

There’s a reason even countries like Saudi Arabia (and the U.S.) are writing “circularity” into their obligations: proposals that push advanced plastic recycling, with the intent of extending the lifespan of plastics, will allow fossil fuel companies and states to keep extracting oil to make new plastics by taking the attention off the plastic caps being mulled by the High Ambition nations. There also isn’t an agreed-upon meaning of the term “circularity,” Inside Climate News points out, meaning countries and companies can use the eco-friendly buzzword without being nailed to a commitment they don’t intend to keep.

Additionally, there are lots of valid concerns about advanced recycling, from the heavy energy and emissions output required to extend the lifespan of plastics to the current technological inability to minimize the dangers of toxic chemicals produced in the process.

Some players have also have stressed that all the attention on recycling alone is too limited. “To focus on plastic waste in this treaty would be a failure because you have to look at plastic production to solve the crisis — including the extraction of fossil fuels and the toxic chemical additives,” Dr. Tadesse Amera, the co-chair of the International Pollutants Elimination Network, told Spain’s El País.

Setting the Seine

What happens next?

A global agreement on how to handle plastic pollution was still clearly a ways off on Friday as the conference wound down. But by the end of the week, the delegates could celebrate genuine progress toward formulating objectives, obligations, and implementation tactics, and had additionally mandated a zero draft text of the treaty be written by the chair, which will be considered at INC-3. Activists applauded the step, which due to the delays, had not been a given.

There remain major hurdles to clear, however. If there is a single major takeaway from INC-2, it’s that oil-producing countries are becoming worried enough about the treaty’s direction that they’re beginning to drop the cooperative veneer and drag their heels. Even a relatively “underwhelming” plan like United States’ voluntary pledge proposal could potentially be at risk of failing if the consensus group ultimately wins out. “We may have to conjure up some additional days to finalize these talks,” one participant told the Earth Negotiations Bulletin on Wednesday. A hypothetical “INC-6” entered the vocabulary.

In the meantime, the delegates, lobbyists, activists, and observers are on their way back to their respective countries to catch up on sleep, detox from all the chocolate that was consumed, and prepare for INC-3 in Nairobi in November. The clock is ticking but if there is a glimmer of hope for the anti-plastics team, it’s that the oil interests are outnumbered. As Yvette Arellano — the founder and executive director of the Houston-based environmental justice group Fenceline Watch — told me by email from the ground in Paris, “They know once this starts going, it’s only gonna catch more public interest and global momentum.”

Jeva Lange profile image

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City.


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