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April 02, 2024

The Global Plastics Treaty: A Historic Opportunity

In March 2022, the United Nations Environment Assembly decided on a mandate to create the world’s first Plastics Treaty, a legally binding international law aimed at reducing plastic pollution worldwide, and covering the full life-cycle of plastic.

The Global Plastics Treaty: A Historic Opportunity

In March 2022, the United Nations Environment Assembly decided on a mandate to create the world’s first Plastics Treaty, a legally binding international law aimed at reducing plastic pollution worldwide, and covering the full life-cycle of plastic. Plastic is a growing crisis with devastating impact on the environment, human health, human rights, environmental justice, the rights of Indigenous Peoples, biodiversity, and climate. Global actions to address this crisis are urgently needed. As numerous studies have demonstrated, plastic has been found everywhere, not only in ecosystems and the atmosphere but also in the food we eat, the water we drink, and even inside our bodies. For the Global Plastics Treaty to be effective in reversing the tide of plastic pollution, mechanisms and solutions to address it need to exist within climate and planetary boundaries. This treaty is an opportunity to get it right. It can potentially be one of the most significant environmental agreements in history.

 For more information, visit https://www.no-burn.org/unea-plastics-treaty/

The fourth round of negotiations (out of 5) for the Global Plastics Treaty will take place in Ottawa, Canada from April 23-29. 

Progress Towards a Treaty

The below summarizes the most recent developments in negotiations leading up to INC-4. For a recap of outcomes of INC-3, please see our press release and blog

Back to Square Zero with the Zero Draft

In advance of INC-3, the former UN Environment Programme and the Chair of the INC, H.E. Mr. Gustavo Adolfo Meza-Cuadra Velasquez (Perú) released the zero draft text of the treaty, or essentially the full range of options meant for Member States to winnow down through the negotiations. However, at INC-3 a minority of Member States–particularly fossil fuel-producing nations in the newly formed informal “group of like-minded countries” (Iran, the Russian Federation,Saudi Arabia, and others)–demanded that new language be added for consideration that would weaken the Zero Draft. 

Examples of this included pushing voluntary measures over legally-binding measures, and a focus on waste management only, to sabotage talks around plastic production cuts. Instead of closing with a more focused draft to form the basis of negotiations in Ottawa, the Zero Draft tripled in size, threatening the Member States’ agreed upon timeline for finalizing the plastics treaty text by the close of INC-5 in December of this year. 

Global South Leaders Spur Ambition 

While a vast minority of Member States with a vested interest in keeping the status quo sought to derail negotiations, many countries, particularly the African Bloc and Small Island Developing States (SIDs), held firm.  In particular, Angola, Cook Islands, Fiji, Maldives, Mauritius, New Zealand, Nigeria, Panama, Palau, Rwanda, Samoa, Senegal, Tuvalu, and Uruguay demonstrated their commitment to leading the world towards a strong plastics treaty that centers human rights and environmental justice, and many specifically called for plastic production cuts. 

Backsliding Thwarted at UNEA6

From February 26-March 1 at UNEA6, (the sixth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly) representatives from 193 countries considered proposals for “effective, inclusive and sustainable multilateral actions to tackle climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution.” A small handful of countries attempted again to focus treaty talks around waste management alone. However, the ministerial declaration reinforced Resolution 5/14, the international community’s commitment to developing a plastics treaty that covers all stages of plastic pollution from extraction to disposal, signaling that the negotiations in Ottawa will still address plastic production. (For more details see #BreakFreeFromPlastic press release). 

Key Issues to Watch at INC-4 

The below summarizes the potential course of negotiations at INC-4, and the major conflicts that may arise. 

  • Provisional Agenda 

    • Opening of the session. 

    • Election of officers. 

    • Organizational matters:

      •  (a) Adoption of the rules of procedure; 

      • (b) Adoption of the agenda;

      •  (c) Organization of work;

      •  (d) Dates and venues of subsequent sessions; 

      • (e) Provisional agenda of the fifth session. 

  • Preparation of an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment. 5. Other matters. 6. Adoption of the report of the session. 7. Closure of the session.

Key objectives for INC-4

The majority of the discussion at INC-4 will focus on the revised Zero Draft. At INC-4 there will be contact groups, occurring in parallel - the chair has suggested two contact groups, which will also have subgroups. 

  • CG1: parts I and II of the revised Zero Draft

  • CG2: parts III - V of the revised Zero Draft

  • Two important possible outcomes for INC-4 include: 

    • A draft text of the treaty that is sufficiently advanced to allow for it to be finalized at INC-5

    • Agreeing on a schedule for intersessional work to advance specific topics before INC-5

The Battle Over Plastic Production

A key tension point in the negotiations thus far is over including ambitious and binding plastic production cuts in the final treaty. The vast majority of countries engaged in the negotiation process have remained open to including production reduction targets in the treaty. However a small but vocal minority, primarily made up of fossil fuel-producing nations, have sought to sabotage the talks through obstruction tactics and by arguing that plastic pollution starts only at the disposal stage.

One such tactic is to call into question the definition of where “life cycle” starts, despite numerous precedents in international environmental policy, making clear that “life cycle” starts at extraction. Member States have already committed to developing a treaty that covers the full plastic life cycle. 

The other is to dilute the text on plastic reduction by using the terms, “circular economy” and “circularity” as a dog whistle, signaling an emphasis on downstream measures only (waste management), instead of getting to the root of the problem. There is overwhelming evidence that plastic as a material is not “circular” and inevitably becomes waste.  This vocal minority claims that plastic only becomes pollution at the disposal stage, despite the scientific consensus and outcry from millions of people around the world whose land, air, and bodies are being poisoned by this industry. Plastic doesn’t become pollution, plastic is pollution from the moment of fossil fuel extraction. 

For decades, industries and governments who stand to gain from increased plastic production have used a focus on waste management as a strategy to distract policymakers and the public from the need to cut plastic at the source. The plastic treaty process cannot be another example of this devastating cycle. No matter how much money and time the international community throws at clean-ups, better recycling, waste management, and other downstream approaches, the more new plastic is being produced, the more impossible it will be for these damage-control measures to keep pace. 

Procedure over progress? 

Many advocates fear that the fierce debate over Rules of Procedure that stalled negotiations at INC-2 may once again lead to an impasse at INC-4. The main sticking point is on Rule 38 (1), which dictates voting procedures. A small group of countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia have used what could have been routine procedural matters as a tool to undermine a strong treaty, and are proposing full veto power over treaty text by advocating for consensus only, with no opportunity for voting if consensus cannot be reached. 

Whether or not we get an adequate treaty hangs on the outcome of this debate, and if a decision is not reached, negotiations on treaty text could have the rug pulled out from underneath it at any time if a country decides to question the decision making process. This bucks the standard set in other international negotiations like the successful Minamata Convention on mercury, and essentially allows a single country to further delay or even completely block the international community’s ability to get a strong treaty over the finish line. 

Avoiding industry traps

According to a report from the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), 143 fossil fuel and chemical industry lobbyists registered to attend INC-3, a larger group than any national delegation or civil society organization, and gained extensive access to government representatives from around the world, and there is no reason not to believe that INC-4 will be any different.  

GAIA has been monitoring the rise of industry-influenced promotion of burning waste in cement kilns and other incinerators, plastic creditschemical “recycling,” and substitution with other single-use materials (like bioplastic) instead of reuse systems, all which not only cause even more pollution, but shift the focus away from production cuts, which undermines the treaty’s aims to eradicate plastic pollution. 

What is a “Just Transition” for waste pickers and workers? 

A Just Transition under the treaty must promote systemic change that upholds human rights and allows communities most impacted across the plastic life cycle–particularly waste pickers and indigenous people– to live and work with dignity, free from the harms of the plastic industry. A just transition must be truly inclusive, from decision-making to implementation, and allow impacted communities to define their own vision for a plastic-free world, and ensure no communities are impacted by future systems. 

Overall aims for the Treaty

We call on governments to ensure that the emerging instrument includes:

  • Mandatory targets to cap and dramatically reduce virgin plastic production,  commensurate with the scale and gravity of the plastic pollution crisis and aligned with planetary boundaries. This includes, but is not limited to, the elimination of single-use plastics, and other non-essential, unnecessary, or problematic plastic products and applications—including intentionally-added microplastics. This system should be supported by measures to prevent countries that are not parties to the treaty from undermining these agreements.

  • Bans on toxic chemicals in all virgin and recycled plastics based on groups of chemicals, including additives (e.g., brominated flame-retardants, phthalates, bisphenols) as well as notoriously toxic polymers (e.g. PVC). 

  • Legally binding, time-bound, and ambitious targets to implement and scale up reuse and refill to accelerate the transition away from single-use plastics. Correspondingly, the treaty must reject false solutions, regrettable substitutes, and polluting and ineffective techno-fixes such as “chemical recycling,” incineration, waste-to-energy, co-processing of plastic-rich RDF in cement kilns, international waste tradeplastic credits, and other schemes which perpetuate business as usual and support continued plastic production and pollution to the further detriment of the climate, human and environmental health.

  • A just transition to safer and more sustainable livelihoods for workers and communities across the plastics supply chain, including those in the informal waste sector; and addressing the needs of frontline communities affected by plastic production, incineration, and open burning. This approach necessitates respect for human rights and Indigenous Peoples’ rights, and due recognition of the traditional knowledge and expertise of Indigenous and tribal original people of the lands affected, as well as local communities, waste pickers, and formal sector recyclers towards resolving the crisis.

  • Provisions that hold polluting corporations and plastic-producing countries accountable for the profound harms to human rights, human health, ecosystems and economies arising from the production, deployment and disposal of plastics.  Provisions should also provide science-based solutions—including Traditional Teachings and Tribal Science. 

  • In the same light, the treaty should also set publicly accessible, harmonized, legally binding requirements for the transparency of chemicals in plastic materials and products throughout their whole life cycle. 

  • Polluters should be kept out of the treaty negotiations. The INCs should result in a treaty that limits the influence of entities with conflicts of interest (like plastics producers) in the ongoing work of the Conference of Parties (COP) of the eventual treaty.

Key References

GAIA resources relating to the Global Plastics Treaty

Life cycle definitions

Media Contacts

Global Press Contact: 

Regional Press Contacts: 

Spokespeople

The GAIA Network has a diverse delegation of members going to INC-4, mostly from the Global South. Our spokespeople can give you on-the-ground perspectives on how plastic has impacted their region, and the solutions that they are building rooted in equity and justice. They specialize in climate and plastics, corporate accountability, health and toxics, waste colonialism, false solutions (e.g., “chemical recycling”, incineration), environmental justice, policy, and more. Contact us to arrange an interview. 

About GAIA 

GAIA is a worldwide alliance of more than 1,000 grassroots groups, non-governmental organizations, and individuals in over 90 countries. With our work we aim to catalyze a global shift towards environmental justice by strengthening grassroots social movements that advance solutions to waste and pollution. We envision a just, zero waste world built on respect for ecological limits and community rights, where people are free from the burden of toxic pollution, and resources are sustainably conserved, not burned or dumped. 

 
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