Global Plastics Treaty

Anna Triponel

May 17, 2024
Our key takeaway: Plastics are back in the spotlight at the international policy level. In December 2022, 175 government parties to the UN Environment Assembly agreed to draft a legally binding Global Plastics Treaty to tackle plastic pollution on land and in oceans. Last month, negotiators met in Ottawa to align on its objectives and language. So why are plastics important and what role do companies play? Plastic production and pollution severely impact human rights, the environment, and climate. Companies, as major contributors to the plastics crisis, have the power to drive change. Importantly, a human rights approach is critical for a just transition away from plastics toward sustainable and circular packaging. Key measures include: engaging at-risk stakeholders; improving livelihoods for waste pickers; promoting skills development in waste management, and ensuring vulnerable groups, such as Indigenous Peoples, local communities, women, children and youth, are not disproportionately affected. This holistic approach recognises the interconnectedness of human rights, the environment, and climate. Addressing any one of these crises requires tackling the other two - and a number of the proposed provisions in the treaty recognise this. An integrated strategy is the only way forward for people and the planet.

In April 2024, governments came together for the fourth round of intergovernmental negotiations on the revised draft text of the international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment (also called the revised ‘zero draft’):

  • Why plastics?: Plastics have a significant environmental impact. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) reports that around 36% of all plastics produced are used in packaging, including single-use products; around 85% of single-use plastics end up in landfills or as “unregulated waste.” What’s more around 98% of single-use plastic products are produced from fossil fuels—as a result, the level of greenhouse gas emissions from production, use and disposal of virgin plastics is projected to grow to 19% of the total global carbon budget by 2040. Plastics, according to UNEP, “are becoming part of the Earth's fossil record and a marker of the Anthropocene, our current geological era. They have even given their name to a new marine microbial habitat called the ‘plastisphere.’” And environmental plastics don’t disappear, they just continue to break down into microplastics, allowing them to accumulate in the human body and cause health impacts, according to studies. Beyond the health impacts and contribution to climate change, plastics also have a significant human rights footprint, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights. For example, burning and improper disposal of plastics can create toxic air pollution for local communities; waste pickers of recycled materials are vulnerable to forced labour, child labour, and long-term health issues among other human rights risks; and plastic pollution in the earth and water systems could affect food production, potentially leading to food insecurity. According to a study in Nature, if no change is made, plastic production and disposal could increase threefold by 2060—impacting Asian and African countries the most. 
  • What are some of the key points in the draft treaty?: The treaty is based on three main principles: eliminate plastic waste and pollution, circular plastic products and materials, and regenerate nature. Some of the key goals of the treaty are phasing out single-use and excessive packaging; establishing design requirements to decrease plastic consumption; and enabling governments to implement the treaty effectively, through technical and financial assistance. Importantly, the draft treaty also includes different options for text that emphasise the importance of a just transition when addressing plastic pollution. For example, one of the proposed text options emphasises the need to ensure “a fair, equitable and inclusive transition for affected populations” with special consideration for Indigenous Peoples and local communities, waste pickers and other workers in plastic waste value chains, women, and vulnerable groups like children and youth. Some of the proposed policy solutions include stakeholder engagement with the people most at-risk of human rights impacts of plastic pollution; improving income-generating activities and livelihoods for waste pickers and other plastic value chain workers; incentivising skills development in “reuse, repair, waste collection and sorting”; improving working conditions and occupational safety for waste pickers and plastic value chain workers; and ensuring that waste management facilities do not disproportionately impact the most vulnerable groups, among other policy interventions. 
  • What's next?: Of course, the key provisions of the treaty are far from set in stone. In November 2024, negotiators will come together again in Busan, South Korea, for the fifth negotiation meeting on the draft treaty text. In the interim, delegates to the negotiating committee will move forward with formal sessions to advance on the treaty provisions, including the financial support needed for implementation of the treaty.

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