Discord from beginning: First round of talks for a global plastic treaty was not a success; here is why

Industry representatives attended the event, even as civil society was often not allowed at most closed door meetings

By Siddharth Ghanshyam Singh
Published: Thursday 05 January 2023
Plastic waste is projected to triple by 2060. Two-thirds of the projected waste is expected to be made up of packaging, consumer products and textiles (Photograph: Vikas Choudhary)
Plastic waste is projected to triple by 2060. Two-thirds of the projected waste is expected to be made up of packaging, consumer products and textiles (Photograph: Vikas Choudhary) Plastic waste is projected to triple by 2060. Two-thirds of the projected waste is expected to be made up of packaging, consumer products and textiles (Photograph: Vikas Choudhary)

On December 2, 2022, negotiators responsible for carving out a global treaty on ending plastic pollution by 2024 concluded their first ever meeting in Punta Del Este, Uruguay.

The five-day meeting of the intergovernmental negotiating committee, which began on November 28, showed glimpses of what is in store over the next two years.

Countries spoke in different voices, with their individual interests in mind and many negotiating teams saw strong representation from the industry, which until recently opposed the treaty that was agreed upon by all 195 UN member-states at the resumed session of the fifth United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA), held in Nairobi, Kenya, between February 28 and March 2, 2022.

The negotiation process was attended by member-states from regional groups, along with major groups that include the civil society and other stakeholders, and observers that include individuals and bodies not enrolled under UN Environment Programme but have a stake in the treaty.

Surprisingly, industry representatives attended the event both as part of the member-state delegations and as major groups. In fact, the industry participated even in the regional group meetings that were held on the sidelines, where the member-states decided their stance on the issue.

Most of these meetings were closed door, and often did not allow the civil society. For instance, the Asia-Pacific region refused the participation of civil society organ-isations in its regional meetings, but allowed the industry.

“Allowing the very companies that are driving the harms caused by plastic pollution to have an equal seat at the table sets a concerning precedent for the negotiations to come. We cannot allow plastic producers to take control of this process while vulnerable communities struggle with equitable access and having their voices heard in these spaces,” says Christina Dixon, ocean campaign leader at the UK-based non-profit Environmental Investigation Agency.

The first event at the meeting, the Multi-Stakeholder Forum, was aimed at finding common ground between environmental justice groups, waste pickers, public health professionals, environmentalists, and the petrochemical industry.

“That is a recipe for failure. Instead, the treaty process should have followed the precedent of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which excluded the tobacco industry from its negotiations. The plastics/petrochemical industry is not part of the solution, it is the problem,” says Neil Tangri, science and policy director at the US-based non-profit Global Alliance for Incineration Alternatives.

The discrimination did not end there. Usually, at UN meetings, specific time is allocated to member-states, major groups and observers to voice their interventions, and they play a crucial role in guiding the discussions.

The regional groups and member-states normally get to speak first, followed by the major groups, and finally, if time permits, observers also contribute. But it was decided that for the remaining four meetings to finalise the treaty, major groups and observers will clubbed together. This means the civil society will have lesser time to voice their concerns.

Meanwhile, nothing concrete came out of the initial discussion, with countries failing to even come to a consensus on the decision making process. While some countries pushed for voting with a two-thirds majority, many others, including India, demanded complete agreement to take decisions at the meeting, which means even if one of the member-states has a problem, contentious points will have to be re-discussed.

The member-states, depending on their positions at the meeting, could be labelled as neutral, ambitious or unambitious.

The High Ambition Coaltion, led by Norway and Rwanda, demanded a legally binding treaty that will revolve around three principles: restrain plastic consumption and production to sustainable levels, enable a circular economy that protects the environment and human health and achieve environmentally sound management and recycling of plastic waste.

The unambitious group called for voluntary commitments by countries, depending on their capabilities. The US, one of the largest plastic-producing nations, said countries should be allowed to voluntarily prioritise the most important sources and types of plastic pollution.

Saudi Arabia insisted that the interests of oil-producing countries should be considered while negotiating the treaty. China justified the call for voluntary commitments on the flimsy ground that implementing universal commitments would be difficult. The neutral countries, including India, mostly remained silent during the negotiations.

The only silver lining at the meeting was the decision to set up a voluntary body, the Group of Friends of Waste Pickers, which will serve as a platform for regular exchange, dialogue and consultation among member-state representatives, and highlight the good waste management practises to be included in the debate.

Overall, the pace at which the negotiations progressed at the first meeting has left the civil society worried over whether the 2024 timeline will be met. This is alarming as in a business-as-usual scenario, plastic waste is projected to triple by 2060, according to the latest forecasts by the OECD’s Global Plastics Outlook, rising from 353 million tonnes of waste in 2019 to 1,014 million tonnes in the next four decades. Two thirds of this is expected to be made up of packaging, consumer products and textiles.

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This was first published in the 1-15 January, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth

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