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Make it bold, make it binding – towards an effective plastics treaty

Ahead of the first meeting negotiating a global plastics treaty, Christina Dixon, Ocean Campaign Leader at the Environmental Investigation Agency, writes about this once-in-a-generation opportunity to curb the ever-growing plastics crisis and how the UK Government can ensure the success of the process.

November 2022

In March 2022, governments from around the world meeting for the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) in Nairobi took a huge step forward in the battle against plastic pollution by agreeing to kickstart negotiations towards a new global plastics treaty.

It’s become increasingly clear that the new treaty represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to curb the ever-growing plastics crisis and its contribution to both biodiversity loss, the climate emergency and human health.

But looking at other floundering multilateral negotiations and the corporate greenwashing of these meetings, it is important to ask ourselves why this is different and what we can hope to get out of this process.

My organisation, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), has been following the road towards a plastics treaty for a number of years, drafting proposals for what a potential agreement could look like and working with governments, companies and civil society organisations around the world to promote and advocate for measures across the lifecycle of plastics that could help us turn the tide.

Fortunately, the UK Government has been at the forefront of the decision to negotiate the new treaty, co-sponsoring an ambitious resolution submitted to UNEA by Rwanda and Peru and then joining the High Ambition Coalition, a group of countries pushing for the best possible agreement.

Despite the recent turbulence in UK Government, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) has launched a comprehensive programme for engaging different stakeholders in the position-setting process for the UK in partnership with the Ocean Plastics Leadership Network.

We have every reason to believe that the UK will be an active and influential player in the talks, so our priority now is to keep this issue on its radar and work collectively to pursue an ambitious domestic policy agenda to complement the work happening on the global stage. In other words, we should have our own house in order while talking to others about theirs.

It won’t come as a shock to learn that the problem we are facing has multiple root causes, from the failure of companies to meet their voluntary targets and a rampant trade in plastic waste with dire consequences for human rights and environmental health to a petrochemical industry set to expand exponentially in the coming years.  

Despite rising alarm about plastic pollution and its impacts, producers continue to pump markets full of cheap virgin plastics, suppressing the economic viability of reusable or recycled alternatives and ignoring the environmental externalities.

Just as concerning is a shift to promoting false ‘unicorn’ solutions such as chemical recycling and material substitutions – anything to avoid tackling the elephant in the room of reducing production.

Today, there is no single global framework to address plastic pollution comprehensively in all environments and at all stages of the plastics lifecycle, meaning there has been little imperative for producers to act. Obligations are fragmented and currently sit between several international agreements, regional regulations, domestic policy and voluntary industry commitments.

The treaty’s ultimate success in stopping plastic pollution will be defined by the inclusion of measures which can lead to the truly sustainable production and consumption of plastics.

In our briefing to the first meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC), we outline some key elements this treaty must get right if it stands a chance. These include:

  • controls on virgin plastic production
  • a comprehensive monitoring and reporting framework
  • stable and predictable financing
  • a safe and non-toxic vision for the circular economy
  • transparency along the value chain
  • avoiding the failings of the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) model under the Paris agreement.

With that in mind, we urge the UK to continue to take a principled stance on the core elements that will set the foundation for an effective treaty.

Moreover, strong leadership on the global stage should not come at the expense of pursuing a domestic policy agenda which will rapidly move us towards sustainable levels of production and consumption in the short term.

Ultimately, it must be bold, it must be binding – and the work starts at home.

Christina Dixon, Ocean Campaign Leader at the Environmental Investigation Agency Follow @_C_Dixon

The opinions expressed in this blog are the authors' and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.