As the third negotiations (INC3) for a global plastics treaty closed earlier this week, civil society organizations from different countries were disappointed over the seeming failure to move closer to a strong and binding global plastic agreement to end plastic pollution.
Plastic pollution has reached a critical global scale. Annually, over 280 million tonnes of short-lived plastic products are discarded, as reported by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). An estimated 19-23 million tonnes of this waste seeps into aquatic ecosystems, relentlessly polluting lakes, rivers, and seas.
According to environmental justice group BAN Toxics, instead of endorsing a mandate for the initial draft, Member States chose to revise the Zero Draft, expanding it and making progress more difficult. The draft emerged after the second round of talks in Paris earlier this year, intended to facilitate the negotiations in formulating an international legal instrument. It was a balanced document with a range of views presented as options before the start of INC3.
“Petrochemical and plastics industry-leaning governments successfully undermined the talks by raising procedural objections, stalling the negotiations, and introducing low-ambition language to dilute the push for a globally binding agreement,” said Jam Lorenzo, research and policy officer of BAN Toxics currently in Nairobi. Lorenzo joined other civil society organizations, many coming from global networks such as the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), and the Break Free from Plastics (BFFP) movement.
Civil society strongly criticized the open-door policy accorded to the industry during the talks. As per the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) report, 143 lobbyists from the fossil fuel and chemical industries registered to attend INC-3. This group surpassed any national delegation or civil society organization in size and acquired significant access to government representatives worldwide.
Certain member states exerted considerable effort to weaken the directive for a treaty encompassing the full lifecycle of plastic, including its production, which starts at raw material extraction. They aim to concentrate solely on waste management strategies, asserting that the issue does not stem from plastic itself but from its management and disposal.
“Member States in the room have the moral obligation to prioritize planetary boundaries, human rights, and just transition for fenceline communities and waste pickers. A handful of countries must not hold the planet hostage and prevent an ambitious treaty addressing the full life cycle of plastics, which starts at raw material extraction,” said Merrisa Naidoo, Plastics Campaigner at GAIA Africa.
All plastics are made of chemicals. More than 13,000 chemicals have been identified as associated with plastics and plastic production across a wide range of applications, based on UNEP studies. Some of these chemicals are toxic that harm human health and the environment.
Plastics production also significantly fuels the climate crisis. It is among the most energy-intensive manufacturing processes globally, deriving from fossil fuels like crude oil. In 2019 alone, plastics accounted for 1.8 billion metric tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing 3.4% to the global total.
“The health and environmental impacts of plastics, especially problematic ones containing toxic materials and unnecessary single-use products, are being ignored in these discussions, and giant plastics and fossil fuel industries continue to promote false solutions, block scientific progress, and influence the negotiations with problematic definitions of key concepts such as reuse and circularity. The level of plastic production remains excessive,” Lorenzo said.
Member States failed to reach a consensus on intersessional work, resulting in the closure of INC-3 without a structured plan to address crucial elements of the treaty. These include the gradual elimination of hazardous chemicals, plastic polymers, and microplastics, as well as the expansion of reuse initiatives before the upcoming negotiations at INC-4. This setback will impede progress in advancing the treaty process during INC-4, according to the group.
“We anticipate fierce resistance in the coming negotiation against the call to reduce virgin plastic production, despite the undeniable truth that the plastics life cycle continues to bring harm. The combustion of fossil fuels stands as the primary driver of the climate crisis, its use exposes populations to harmful chemicals, and the management of plastic waste remains a globally significant health and environmental problem,” added Lorenzo.
“We need a systemic change in the global plastics economy and we must not be hindered by diversionary tactics and false solutions. We echo the calls of civil society groups from across the world to adhere to the zero-waste hierarchy by prioritizing reduction and reuse before recycling. A fair and equitable transition is necessary so that wealthier countries and major polluters take responsibility for the disproportionate mess they have created,” Lorenzo concluded.
BAN Toxics is collaborating closely with various civil society organizations in the region and globally, gearing up for the INC-4 in Canada next April, aiming for a plastics treaty that advocates human rights and environmental justice. #