Second session of Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on plastic pollution is being held in Paris, France from May 29-June 2, 2023
Inger Andersen, executive-director of UNEP, addressing the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee during its second session in Paris, France. Photo: @andersen_inger / Twitter
Plastic is a non-renewable product and is just another form of fossil fuel, equally responsible for environmental pollution and climate crisis. Every aspect of its life cycle — from extraction to final disposal — has the potential to fuel climate change.
For decades, plastic pollution has been misunderstood and underestimated to be a waste mismanagement issue — a problem to be solved through technological interventions. The petroleum and petrochemicals industry argues that it is not a part of this problem, and most of our national legislations have been taken in by this argument.
As a result, all our efforts have been directed towards the downstream end of the plastic life cycle. Governments have mobilised funds to ‘manage plastic waste’, while the production has kept on increasing exponentially. We have produced more plastics in the last 10 years than in the last century!
The Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) on Plastic Pollution is in the process of developing “an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment”. After its first session, the Secretariat of Governing Bodies and Stakeholders had invited written submissions from major groups and stakeholders.
Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), being one of the accredited NGOs with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), had made a written submission that was acknowledged by the INC Secretariat and uploaded on the UNEP portal for public information.
CSE’s submission to INC Secretariat
CSE’s submission focused on the objectives and the core obligations, control measures and voluntary approaches.
The submission mentioned the following points:
- The objective of the instrument (International legally binding instrument, informally known as the Global Plastic Treaty or GPT) should clearly define its scope to end plastic pollution, and plan to reduce (over a period of ‘X’ years) production and consumption of plastics and chemicals used in plastics, especially by businesses
- It is important to identify and stop the production of non-recyclable (terminologies used in the UNEA options paper are problematic / unnecessary / avoidable) plastics like carry (carrier) bags and multi-layered packaging material
- Certain priority sectors like packaging have been using an unsustainable quantum of plastics (typically single-use) — they should be regulated and have to be incorporated in the National Action Plans (NAP) and the national reporting system under implementation measures
- Under core obligations, transparency with respect to production, consumption and import / export of plastic and plastic waste has to be created and nurtured at a global level
- Control measures have to be focused on differentiating between recycling and disposal (waste-to-energy and co-incineration) technologies.
- Many countries have expressed that compostable and biodegradable plastics are the solutions to the plastic crisis. However, it should be brought to the knowledge of the member states that bioplastics come with their own set of challenges and do little to tackle the plastic problem at source
As the second session of INC is underway, CSE lists out its expectations from the final document:
Demands for strong Global Plastic Treaty (GPT)
GPT to end plastic pollution including in the marine environment covers the entire life cycle of plastic, and rightly so. The entire life cycle (upstream, midstream and downstream) of plastic encompasses:
- Upstream: Extraction of raw materials like crude oil and gas; Refining the crude oil in petrochemical companies; Polymer / plastic industry involved in plastic production
- Midstream: Businesses using plastics for profits, their distribution channels, including retailers and street vendors
- Downstream: Waste management with respect to plastic for instance, segregation, collection, storage; Mechanical recycling of plastic; End of life disposal of plastic waste, such as co-processing and waste-to-energy
We list some major issues the treaty negotiations should focus on and also raise flags about the politics we should be aware of at all points of time.
- What kind of plastic gets manufactured / produced
- What chemicals are used for production
- Oil & gas majors and their economic interest in increased production of polymers
- Plastic-producing majors and their economic interest in unsustainable production of polymers
- Plastic products should be designed for reuse and recyclability. This would mean phasing out all the non-recyclable plastics
- The narrative of “problematic / unnecessary / avoidable” plastics — terminologies used in the options for elements paper by UNEP — should be replaced with “non-recyclable”. This is because the terminologies used by UNEP may be interpreted differently by different stakeholders
- Disposal (incineration) and mechanical recycling are used interchangeably by the petroleum, petrochemical and the plastic industry. There should be a clear definition of what we mean by recycling and an exclusion of ‘end of life disposal’ technologies like co-processing / co-incineration and waste to energy from the word recycling
- Opacity in chemicals used by the polymer industry. The same Low density polyethylene that is used to make milk packets is also used to make our shampoo bottles and our multilayered packaging material. The plastic / polymer material remains the same, but exhibits a variety of physical and chemical properties such as flexibility, form, colour, among others. The variation in the properties is a result of the chemicals that are added to the base polymer. Of the 10,000 chemicals that are used by businesses, most of the chemicals are not known. At least 2,500 of the known chemicals are scientifically proven to have adverse health impacts
- Reuse and recycling are the technological solutions. Reuse makes more sense as per the waste management hierarchy. However, products are not designed to be recyclable as businesses do not have liability for the plastic they introduce in the market
- Stay away from compostable and biodegradable plastics. Bureau of Indian Standards in April 2023 issued a statement that warned about any claims of biodegradable plastics made by companies being false, it further said research on biodegradable plastics is ongoing not only in India but across the globe
- Recycling may not be the ultimate solution to the plastic crisis. For instance as per a Greenpeace report-the USA recycles 5 per cent of its plastic waste. As per a CSE report, India recycles 13 per cent of its plastic waste. It is known that most of the plastic waste generated in the Global North is incinerated and not recycled, and yet claimed to be recycled
- The so-called recycling symbol on all plastic products (even on non-recyclable plastics). The recycling symbol on every plastic product has nothing to do with recycling
- The narrative that the plastic crisis is strictly a “waste management problem” needs to change. The problem of plastics is much more complicated. It is a concoction of unsustainable production issues, human health issues, environmental issues and much more
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