Waste

False solutions, green washing may put dampner on historic global plastic treaty

The real fight now is to develop a treaty without the negative influence of the conglomerates.

 
By Siddharth Ghanshyam Singh
Published: Friday 04 March 2022

The world took a step in the right direction to address the issue of plastic pollution, with representatives of 175 nations agreeing to start writing a global treaty on plastic pollution March 2, 2022. “We are making history today,” said Espen Barth Eide, Norway’s climate and environment minister and president of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA). 

The member states of UNEA which were holding talks in Nairobi earlier this week to discuss the terms of the treaty, agreed it should address the “full life cycle of plastics”. This means the final resolution, which is heavily influenced by the Rwanda-Peru joint draft resolution, takes into account production, design, recycling and management of plastic waste. This will promote resource efficiency and circularity around plastics.

The resolution manages to achieve another unprecedented feat by recognising the significant contribution made by workers under informal and cooperative settings to collecting, sorting and recycling plastics in many countries.

The resolution urged the United Nations Environment Programme to convene an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC), which will commence its work during the second half of 2022, with the ambition of completing its work by end of 2024.

Provisions of resolution

The treaty on plastic pollution, which includes both microplastics and marine litter, will have both binding and voluntary approaches. The resolution indicated that the proposed INC has to include provisions of promoting national and international co-operative measures and national action plans to work towards the prevention, reduction and elimination of plastic pollution. 

The treaty will also specify arrangements for capacity building, technical assistance, technology transfer and financial assistance.

The participation in the ad-hoc open-ended working group and the intergovernmental negotiating committee will be open to all member states of the United Nations and members of its specialised agencies, regional economic integration organisations and relevant stakeholders. 

The resolution also indicated the possibility of a global dedicated fund and invited governments and other stakeholders to provide budgetary resources.

Similarities with Montreal, Paris agreements

The blueprint for the plastic pollution resolution is being compared to the Montreal protocol  to prevent ozone layer depletion and the Paris accord to contain the effects of climate change.

Some striking features similar to these treaties are that they are open ended. This means negotiators can add new topics that they see relevant and leave room for discussions on topics that were not discussed in detail in the current negotiations. Such issues can be discussed in subsequent meetings and help members move towards a stronger plastic treaty. 

Multilateral global fund also ensures that countries and economies in transition, especially those in the global south that have to deal with a large fraction of plastic waste but have least to do with its propagation, are supported by countries whose plastic production and waste generation are much higher.

Objections from countries

In the course of the negotiations, some of those points faced objections from countries, including the United States, Japan and India. At least one point has been dropped from the resolution after objections from US, which focused on the concern over chemicals in plastic. 

Japan and India presented their draft resolutions before UNEA 5.2, while the US didn’t present any. Japan was rooting for a treaty focusing solely on marine litter and India had proposed a voluntary approach rather than a legally binding one. 

The term “voluntary” was retained in the final text on India’s insistence. Also as per reports, India was keen on insertion of words “national circumstances and capabilities” in the final text, which is in alignment with its position of common but differentiated responsibility under the Paris agreement.

What is the “full life cycle” of plastic?

What is unclear from the resolution is oil, gas and coal companies will have any obligations for extracting fossil fuels. The extraction phase is the source of around 99 per cent of plastics. 

The United Kingdom-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has outlined what exactly encompasses the life cycle of plastics from extraction to end of life disposal, citing some very important facts with respect to greenhouse (GHG) gas emissions, health, water pollution, production, use and end-of-life disposal.

Stage of lifecycle of plastic

Facts stated by EIA, UK

Extraction

  • Almost two billion tonnes of GHG emissions per year
  • At least 10,000 additive chemicals used, of which 25 per cent are hazardous

Production

  • Over 460 million tonnes of plastic produced annually
  • 2,30,000 tonnes of plastic pellets enter the environment every year

Use

  • Per capita use of plastic is as high as 221 kilogram for some countries
  • Half of all the plastics used is single-use plastic (SUP)

End of life

Managed (in some parts of the world)

  • Only nine per cent of all plastics ever produced have been recycled
  • Over 90 per cent of plastic waste goes to landfills, is dumped or incinerated
  • Over eight million tonnes of plastics are exported annually

Mismanaged (In other parts of the world)

  • 12 million tonnes leak into the ocean every year
  • Land pollution is upto 23 times worse than ocean pollution

Source: Environmental Investigation Agency, UK.

Two-year overview

The next two years (till 2024) is where the actual work is going to be. While the strong mandate coming out of UNEA is a reflection of how quickly the plastic crisis is escalating, a lot still needs to be done to translate the commitment to tangible reality. 

Experts are expecting fierce resistance from the petrochemical industry, who are not happy with the resolution. This is because plastics are some of the biggest drivers of fossil fuel demand. In India, the share price of Reliance Industries limited (RIL) fell as the global plastic treaty news spread across the country. RIL holds a 42 per cent stake in the Indian plastic ecosystem.

There are very high chances that the plastic industry might attempt to insert false solutions like chemical recycling (plastic to fuel) and incineration (including co-incineration) in the final text. This is because the agreement invites all relevant stakeholders that include giant businesses and industries such as petroleum and petrochemical.

The industry has been promoting chemical recycling, with limited success to enable further production of plastics and label plastics as circular.

We can also expect a lot of companies to start claiming they are “plastic neutral”. The term refers to the practice of collecting back and recycling the same amount of plastic they put out in the market as products. A classic example is Indian multinational consumer goods company Dabur Ltd that announced they’re plastic neutral February 14, 2022.

In India, as per the latest extended producer responsibility notifications, most fast-moving consumer goods companies will now start focusing on trading plastic credits and move towards plastic neutrality to greenwash their brands and move away from the accountability aspect of plastic.

The beginning of writing a global plastic treaty is just the first step to winning the battle against plastic pollution. The real fight now is to develop a treaty without the negative influence of the conglomerates.

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