At the first round of negotiations on a global plastics treaty, most governments, advocacy groups, and chemical industry representatives are united on the basics. They are laying the groundwork for the world to prevent and clean up plastic pollution.
They are far apart on the details of the pact, which is set to be completed in late 2024.
For instance, at the meeting, which began Nov. 28 in Uruguay, representatives of a number of countries and advocacy groups stressed the need to stop the manufacture of plastics that contain hazardous additives. These chemicals can adversely affect human health and can contaminate new plastics if they are combined through recycling.
Speaking on behalf of the International Council of Chemical Associations, Stewart Harris told C&EN that industry is working to improve information sharing about plastic additives. In addition, companies are beginning to think about recyclability when they design new products, he said.
Some advocacy groups complained about the presence of industry representatives at the treaty discussions. Talks on the 2003 World Health Organization treaty on tobacco control intentionally excluded tobacco companies. Similarly, an industry that profits from producing plastic and has the money to influence governments should not be at the table for the current talks, the groups say.
But many governments have welcomed industry’s participation, Harris said. Plastics makers are investing in joint ventures with waste management companies and seeking to ramp up plastics recycling, he said.
At the talks, some negotiators from small island, developing countries described how they end up with a disproportionate amount of the world’s plastic pollution.
Ocean currents carry plastic from elsewhere on Earth and deposit tons of it each year on the beaches of the western Pacific island nation of Palau, to the detriment of its tourism-based economy, said Bernadette Besebes, who represented Palau in Uruguay.
The ocean-borne material is too degraded by sunlight and saltwater to be reused, repurposed, or recycled, she said. So it goes into Palau’s landfill and shortens the amount of time the country has to find enough land and money to build another.
To help countries such as Palau with the burden of plastic pollution they didn’t create, can’t control, and can’t fix alone, Bebes has one specific suggestion: “Close the tap. Stop producing single-use plastics.”
It’s too early in the talks to determine whether the treaty would enact such a ban.
US assistant secretary of state Monica P. Medina said the US seeks an agreement in which each country establishes its own plan to reduce the amount of plastic entering the environment. The petrochemical industry calls this a bottom-up approach that allows flexibility to address different circumstances throughout the world.
Such a strategy would generally follow the model of the most recent climate change pact, the 2015 Paris Agreement, which many countries and environmental advocacy groups say is a poor model. They note that the world is currently on track to zoom past the Paris pact’s goal to limit global warming to 1.5 °C over preindustrial levels by the end of this century.
Instead, they point to the success of the 1989 Montreal Protocol to protect Earth’s ozone layer. That treaty uses a top-down approach, controlling the global production of chemicals that deplete ozone.
When treaty partners agree to ratchet back production of these commercial substances, they can do so relatively easily, without needing to hammer out a new accord. In contrast, the Paris Agreement addresses greenhouse gas emissions only through 2030. Any further coordinated global action to control these emissions will require another treaty.