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Negotiations on international plastic pollution treaty to wrap up this year

UN meetings’ deals on plastics production, waste could shake up the plastics and chemical industries

by Leigh Krietsch Boerner
January 19, 2024 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 102, Issue 2


Image of a large open meeting room full of negotiators in Kenya in November 2023.
Credit: IISD/ENB | Anastasia Rodopoulou
Negotiators at the third Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) meeting, held in Nairobi, Kenya, in November 2023, worked to revise a draft of the treaty on plastic pollution. The last two INC meetings will be held this year to finalize the text in the international legally binding agreement.

By the end of 2024, the United Nations Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) on plastic pollution should have the final text of a treaty telling the world how to deal with the hundreds of millions of metric tons of plastics produced each year. The wording could have major ramifications for the chemical industry in the coming years.


The United Nations is planning two key meetings in 2024, INC-4 and INC-5, which aim to finalize a treaty addressing global plastic pollution.

Disagreements on plastics production cuts and the life cycle of plastic pose challenges; the treaty’s outcome could greatly affect the plastics and chemical industries.

In the 2022 resolution to develop the treaty, the committee noted that “the high and rapidly increasing levels of plastic pollution represent a serious environmental problem at a global scale, negatively impacting the environmental, social and economic dimensions of sustainable development.”

The first three INC meetings took place in 2022 and 2023. INC-4 will be in Canada in April; negotiators plan to finalize the treaty wording at INC-5, which is scheduled for November, in South Korea.

INC-3 ended in November 2023 without the expected first draft of the treaty text. Disagreement over language on reducing the production of plastics meant negotiators didn’t settle on the draft language. Incoming INC chair Luis Vayas Valdivieso revised the rough draft with notes from the INC-3 working groups.

Further complicating matters, negotiators at the 28th UN Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28) in December agreed to start “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems.” But using fossil fuels as feedstocks for plastics isn’t mentioned, notes Bjorn Beeler, international coordinator for the advocacy group International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN). To replace lost income from fuel production, oil-rich countries may pivot to plastics—causing the plastics problem to balloon, he says.

Several issues are going to be important as international policymakers try to come to a consensus on a plastics treaty this year. Probably the biggest and most contentious matter is defining the life cycle of plastics. Where participants decide that it starts will have huge significance when assigning responsibility for financing the cleanup of plastic pollution.

Members of the plastics and chemical industries argue that the life cycle of plastic begins when people discard it and that it shouldn’t be called waste. “If we embrace the concept of circular production, we should reframe them as ‘recyclable plastic materials,’ ” Perc Pineda, chief economist at the Plastics Industry Association, says in a statement released during INC-2.

But advocacy groups say the life cycle starts when the sources of plastic feedstock—oil and gas—come out of the ground. If plastic isn’t made, they say, it doesn’t become waste. Talking about plastics recycling is a nonstarter in the US because only 5–10% is actually recycled, according to Beeler. As a financial venture, it loses money. There’s nothing to do with plastic waste once it’s made, so it ends up in landfills and waterways, he says. After COP28, the plastics industry is pushing harder against this view.

Clashes over reducing plastics production, which tripped up the end of INC-3, will persist into 2024. In the last 2 decades, global production of plastics has tripled, Beeler says, and it is predicted to continue growing. Reducing output runs directly counter to the goals of plastics manufacturers, and negotiators are going to be hard pressed to reach consensus on that.

Even if 2024 does bring final wording for the plastics treaty, it will be a while before any mandates are implemented. After negotiators agree on the text, the treaty has to be signed at a diplomatic conference. The agreement must then be ratified by the countries that signed it. In all, Beeler says, the process could take years.


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