Representation of the exposure of marine life to microplastics. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microplastics#/media/File:The_breakdown_of_a_plastic_bottle_into_smaller_fragments,_eventually_ending_up_as_micro-_and_nano-plastics.png)
A New Plastics Treaty Is Being Negotiated at the UN: What You Need to Know
Negotiations for a new Global Treaty on Plastics formally kicked off in early December. Delegates from around 160 countries met in Uruguay for the first round of talks aimed at reducing the harmful impact of plastics on both the environment and health.
António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations, has called plastics “fossil fuels in another form.” And called on governments to support a treaty that not only dealt with plastic waste and recycling, but also the entire life cycle of plastics, including measures to control the production of plastics.
In this episode, we are joined by Andres Del Castillo, senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law, who attended the negotiations, which took place in the seaside city Punta Del Este.
We discuss why regulating plastics through an international agreement is necessary, as well the process for these negotiations and the stances thus far of key governments around the world, including the USA, China, the European Union and countries in the global south.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:02:32] Can I just have you make the case for a plastics treaty? What is the harm from plastics and why is international cooperation required to mitigate that harm?
Andres Del Castillo [00:02:59] First, let me set the scene and give you a little bit of the context of where we are with this idea of having a plastic treaty. We are talking about a complex material consisting of mixtures of chemicals like additives, processing aids and unintentional added substance, which are out of control, mainly because of two reasons: the first reason is the complexity of the material and the second is the proliferation. So, on the complexity, just to give you a scale of where we are, we are talking about 200,000 polymers that are in the EU market only with more than 10,000 associated chemicals, meaning that plastics are complex and we are not just talking about seven specific resins, but about an infinite number of combinations of chemicals. This complexity makes plastic difficult to deal with. This idea of proliferation is what we see in a huge number of applications and sectors of the economy, but as well, we are seeing that on the environment, on the biota and recently on human beings. There are recent studies that shows that there are microplastics in human placenta, human lungs, blood, and the last scientific studies show that there is microplastics in breast milk. So sometimes I refer to the absurdity of where we are in this crisis by quoting a UN scientific report that was launched last year that said that some evidence suggests that the use of microplastics in offshore oil and gas activities could be substantial, and microplastics are known to be used in production and drilling processes in oil and gas activities. For me, this absurdity shows that this idea of microplastics or plastic that are less than five millimeters are everywhere and it is not only a question of waste, but also question that the industry is using that every single day for different applications.
Why is plastic bad for the environment?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:14] But this is more than a microplastics treaty that is envisioned; this is a plastics treaty. What, generally speaking, is the harm that plastics impose on the environment?
Andres Del Castillo [00:05:30] So since the sixties or seventies, there are documentation of physical harms. At the beginning it was more to animals by ingestion of the debris but more and more, we have specific evidence on the chemical or the toxicity of those plastics in human beings and also in biota and in the environment in general. So, it is because of this idea of complexity that we say it is not only a question of plastic waste or the physical items or products that we see on the beaches or on landfills but is also the material itself that is a problem. And this is something that was identified by different countries as a priority, as a common concern of humankind.
How did the idea of a plastics treaty begin?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:21] So I’d love to have you explain to me the origin story of this potential plastics treaty. Is there a civil society movement behind it? I ask, because a pattern that I’ve seen over the years reporting on the United Nations is that whether it’s banning landmines or banning nuclear weapons, these ideas percolate among civil society, then make their way to sympathetic governments who take the ball from there. Is that what’s happening here? How did this idea for a plastics treaty originate and get us to the point where we are today?
Andres Del Castillo [00:07:03] Yes. So first we (when I say we, I mean from the civil society world) we consider that our role has been showing evidence through scientific methodologies or citizen science or just with different activities, showing the gravity of the situation that was at the beginning more this is what is going on in different places around the world, but also intentionally, there are different coalitions or groups from civil society that from the beginning were calling for global control measures to plastics, saying voluntary or national legislation is not enough; we need something more comprehensive because the transboundary dimension of the problem and because we need countries to establish and set rules. So I will affirm that, yes, there is the civil society and other specific stakeholders behind this, calling for specific global rules, but that is not possible to advance if you don’t have, as you mentioned, some specific countries or regions that are champions and what is specific for this idea of plastic pollution and measures is something, even from the regulatory level, we see champions in different countries apart from the global north. For instance, Bangladesh was the first country to ban single use plastic bags and many African countries have identified that plastic was a problem, and since the nineties, we have specific legislation in Africa banning or controlling plastics. So, we see in different countries around the world this idea of championing the concept of global rules for the plastics as products and as materials.
What is in the potential United Nations plastics treaty?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:01] So I’d love to have you discuss process and where we go from here. I’ve been covering the United Nations for a long time, and one lesson I have learned is that process dictates outcomes. Could you explain the context in which negotiations for a potential plastics treaty are taking place? I take it you just returned from Uruguay, where the first round of these negotiations occurred?
Andres Del Castillo [00:09:31] Yes. So, Uruguay was the result of a dream for many of us, having all the countries of the world of the majority, more than 160 countries just talking about plastics. And this is only the first round of negotiations but taking a step back, I can say that the origin of these mandates — that is the way the UN works for developing treaties — was adopted last March during the United Nations Environmental Assembly in Nairobi, where more than 175 countries agreed on a mandate on the minimum elements that a body called INC, or Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee, should look at when negotiating a plastic treaty. In March, we started with a specific mandate with a list of topics that the countries wanted to see reflected in a final treaty but then they also clarified that we have a deadline to finish the discussions in the last part of 2024 and have a potential diplomatic or plenipotentiary conference — that is the conference that closes the meeting for adoptions by different countries — in early 2025. So, the rules and the recipes and the ingredients for making this treaty were given, then the mandate clarified that we need to have a specific meeting on preparations for the negotiation itself and that happened in June in Dakar, Senegal, where countries met to set the rules of the game, called rules of procedures, and set also specific logistic and administrative matters. Then at Uruguay, we touched on both procedural issues, last week, but also on substantive issues that will be discussed along these two years on the plastic treaty.
When might the UN adopt a plastics treaty? What would be included in the plastics treaty?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:11:42] So essentially the meeting in Uruguay was the kickoff for a substantive negotiation leading to one kind of big conference that will happen sometime in 2025 to hopefully adopt some sort of international mechanism, potentially a treaty on controlling plastics. So, say it’s 2025, what would in your mind as an advocate on this issue, a maximally ambitious plastics treaty look like? What would it cover; what would it compel governments to do?
Andres Del Castillo [00:12:25] Well, the good news is it is already in the mandate that I was referring to. We already have the specific elements and the scope of the agreement that is to cover the full lifecycle of plastics, and this can sound tautological, saying full lifecycle, but it was necessary to understand that the problem of plastics is not only a problem of plastic waste, but a problem with the whole lifecycle of plastics as a material.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:54] Like the development of plastics itself requires a lot of fossil fuels, for example, and that the idea is a treaty should not just deal with better ways to recycle or reuse plastic, but indeed how to construct plastic in a more environmentally conscious way.
Andres Del Castillo [00:13:14] Exactly. You said it right: what we use at the international level is “upstream, midstream and downstream stages of the lifecycle.” And on the upstream part, that this is really beginning of plastics, what we expect for the treaty is to recognize that plastics lifecycle starts at extraction point and that so far 99% of plastics are made with fossil fuel. But in the future, considering that the treaty is a long-term policy, there will also be the ideas that cover also agricultural feedstocks, for instance. So, we call this first stage sourcing, meaning extraction, but also cultivation and this isn’t a specific recognition, it doesn’t mean that that will be a priority for the next round of negotiations. And on the priority, what we want to see, of course, is a specific common objective that includes not only the environmental aspects, but also the human health and human rights aspects of the problem that need to be addressed through this mechanism. Mainly what we are advocating for is more upstream measures, meaning reduction of production of primary or virgin plastics. That needs to be a means to achieve an end that these measures end plastic pollution, right? But we don’t see reduction only as a consequence of different policies, but as a means. For reduction, we need to talk about caps on production, on plastics, then also a moratorium on new facilities or even on the expansion of existing facilities, petrochemical facilities that produce plastics, and also a reduction on fossil fuel subsidies and banning the specific types of plastics. Those are the reduction measures that we consider means for the upstream part. Then, of course, we have other specific aspects to cover, that is not only the polymer or one of the main materials for plastic, but also the additive and the toxicity of those additives meaning there are chemicals of concern, harmful hazardous dangers, also persistent organic pollutants that need to be controlled through these mechanisms. And finally, the midstream part that is more related to the design of plastic or some material, right? What needs to be included and the design of products and how much recyclable material needs to be used and rules of no entry into a market for new plastics without data. So, it’s a principle that comes from the European Union regulations on chemicals: “no data, no market” means if you want to put something into the market, you need to show and to be transparent and to share the information that the product and the material is safe for consumers and for industrial use. And finally, the downstream part, that is the part that many people are talking about, reusing systems and also at the end, if that is not possible, the recycling part.
Which countries are advocating for the plastics treaty?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:16:38] So I take it there is a quote, high ambition coalition of countries that broadly subscribe to this maximally ambitious idea of a plastics treaty that encompasses the entire lifecycle of plastics. What countries are in that coalition and how are they approaching negotiations thus far?
Andres Del Castillo [00:17:06] There was a first move led by Norway and Rwanda, when the mandate for the negotiation was adopted, to create an ambition coalition. So far there are 55 members of that coalition, including the European Union, the European Union members, more than nine countries from Latin America. We have seen how Latin America is a champion region for the plastic treaty, but also there is a phenomenon, if I’m not wrong, that there are some countries that we don’t consider as high ambition but are entering into the high ambition coalition because their aim is to have something ambitious, but the question is how they’re going to concretize that with the specific policies and proposals. So far, they have shown that they want to end plastic pollution by 2040, and they say that already this date is ambitious, and they want some specific measures to be taken more top down, meaning control measures at the global level that will influence what’s happening at the national level. So, this is where we are with this high ambition coalition.
Where do the United States and China stand on the UN plastics treaty?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:20] So there’s a significant number of countries, and you said it includes all of the European Union that are seeking this more expansive view of a plastics treaty. What is the position thus far of the United States and China, which I take it are probably two of the larger international producers and consumers of plastic products?
Andres Del Castillo [00:18:43] So for the United States and China, what we see is that they’re really interested in the topic. We can measure that by just saying the number of delegates or negotiators that were present at the first round of negotiations in Uruguay. China sent 24 delegates and the US sent around 30 delegates for the negotiation. This is an indication of how interested they are in the topic but when it comes to the concretized idea of how the treaty will work, we see in the US a lack of ambition in some specific parts, meaning they want to privilege a Paris Agreement style for this plastic treaty, meaning that it will depend on national circumstances and on national capabilities and on national prerogative, the way whole countries will address this crisis.
What is the difference between a treaty and an agreement?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:19:47] So just to emphasize that point, the Paris Agreement model is distinct from a treaty, the Paris Agreement is a political agreement, the core of which includes voluntary actions taken by each country that is part of that political agreement. It is not a treaty which is a legally binding agreement, countries legally agree to take certain actions as opposed to voluntarily agree to take certain actions. And it is the United States’ position at these early stages that they would prefer to see at the end of negotiations not a draft treaty, but a draft political agreement, encouraging countries to take certain steps within their national borders.
Andres Del Castillo [00:20:36] Exactly. What they are trying to put forward is this idea of having national action plans as the backbone of the plastic treaty, meaning in a few words, a Paris agreement style where you have nationally determined contributions, and then they also are asking for specific monitoring and transparency measures. But so far, we don’t see the point of meeting and spending thousands of millions of dollars to talk about voluntary measures, because this is what we have right now. We have many national action plans but it’s not working.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:21:18] So I guess I, to a certain degree, understand America’s point of view here. Just knowing what I know about American politics, it is exceedingly unlikely that if at the end this plastics treaty is opposed by the plastics and petrochemical industry, that you will have the sufficient two thirds majority of the U.S. Senate vote to ratify this treaty. So, it’s one of those treaties that could be out there, as there are many, that the United States might never, ever ratify. So, what’s better here, having the United States agree to voluntary contributions or having a treaty that the United States lives outside of?
Andres Del Castillo [00:22:09] This is a good question that we were trained to deal with during the first rounds of negotiations and this is the idea of flexibility, right? That we find flexibility features not only in the Paris Agreement style and apart from national politics — where we think that the US, even if we have a Paris agreement style, will be unable on the internal level to adopt and ratify this treaty — we see also this idea of countries trying to say let’s go for something more global but if the US is not a member, and not only the U.S., but other countries that are more alienated with fossil fuels, lobby to have other tools. For instance, Mexico put forward as one of the tools that need to be included in the plastic treaty is a close of parties, similar to what we have under the Basel convention, meaning that even if a country doesn’t ratify or is not part of the treaty, they will be affected because they can’t trade or be in negotiations with the parties of the treaty without complying with the safeguards or provisions of the treaties. So, this is also a feature that has been used and put forward as a way to say, well, if the U.S. is not part of the treaty, at least they will be affected by it. And this is the case of the Basel convention, where the U.S. is not a party of the treaty, but there are effects that affect them.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:23:50] What is the Basel convention?
Andres Del Castillo [00:23:52] The Basel Convention is a transboundary movement of hazardous waste and other waste. It is a global convention, mainly on chemicals that is ratified by almost all the countries from the United Nations minus the US and Haiti and Sudan.
Why is the United States not a part of The Basel Convention?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:24:11] And how currently is the U.S. existing outside The Basel Convention impacting America’s ability to interact with countries that exist within it? Just to see how listeners can view this as a potential model for the future plastics treaty.
Andres Del Castillo [00:24:31] Yes, we saw already in 2019, when it the specific amendment or modification of the Basel convention to include plastic waste and classify certain plastic waste as hazardous was adopted. When that happened, there was then an amendment to control plastic waste that before 2019 was not a part of the scope of the convention, and now if there are parties that want to export plastic waste to other parties, they need to apply the prior and informed consent, for instance. And this is something that has been modified for that convention and even if the US is not part of the convention that affects them, because all the parties that the US wants to enter into a negotiation with need to pass on this specific agreement with the same safeguards of The Basel Convention. So, this is the case, for instance, with the US and Canada passing on this specific agreement on the exports of plastic waste in 2020 or 2021 trying to comply with these Basel Convention rules.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:25:47] Because Canada is compelled to comply by it.
Andres Del Castillo [00:25:50] By the Basel Convention, yes.
What is the Chinese policy position on plastic pollution?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:25:52] So could you explain how you see China’s position going forward? You said that they sent a large delegation to that first negotiating conference. What do we know thus far about how they might approach, number one, this question of whether it should be a treaty or not or some sort of political agreement, a la the Paris agreement, what do we know about China’s position?
Andres Del Castillo [00:26:16] First, we know that the question of plastic pollution is high on the agenda of China. We know that because in 2018 they passed an internal, or national, law called the National Sword, where they banned the imports of plastic waste into mainland China. This has been an accelerator or driver of what we see today as a phenomenon, to understand that China received almost 50% of plastic waste from the world until 2018, where they banned the imports of plastic waste. So, we saw many countries and people form the understanding that the way of they were trying to recycle and sorting different plastic waste was not working because many of the products were sent abroad, mainly to China, for disposal or recovery activities in China. So, China under environmental grounds, banned the import of plastic waste in 2018. So, there is an interest from China to work on that. We know also that the National Action Plan of China for Human Rights includes this idea of microplastics and how to deal with that for soil fertility, too. And also, the World Trade Organization — China, together with Fiji and 75 countries, are leading this Pacific initiative called Dialogue on Plastic Pollution, so it’s not only the negotiations scenario where China has been present or active, but it’s another scenario with China has been demonstrating that this is high in their agenda. Now on the negotiation of the plastic treaty, this is the first time that China is sending delegates in person for this negotiation. For instance, when the mandate was adopted, China was really active, but remotely, because of their internal policy regarding COVID. But this time the negotiators, they were putting some specific language or some specific ideas over the counter. For instance, this idea of let’s have all the elements before we enter discussions, but also, we can see that China was trying also to open the rules of procedures that establish a specific mechanism for voting, and they were trying to push for a consensus-based negotiation.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:28:44] That’s interesting. So, they are engaging procedurally and to a degree substantively as well. So, we are speaking just a few days after this first round of negotiations concluded. What comes next and what will you be looking towards in the coming months and even years as the world builds momentum towards that 2024 deadline for these negotiations to conclude?
Andres Del Castillo [00:29:16] So first, we are seeing rising interest by many countries, and we saw that last week where more than 74 countries took the floor in the first days, for instance. This is kind of a record. Everybody wanted to take the floor on behalf of their countries or on behalf of the region, meaning that there is interest in that. We saw also international organizations coming forward and bringing their expertise on the topic and the main outcome of the meeting last week, was a request for UNEP or for the INC Secretariat to develop a specific document listing all the potential elements or options that need to be included in the treaty. And this negotiation is good because it’s giving a rhythm of what is going to happen at the INC 2, or the second round of negotiations, that will take place in Paris in the last week of May. And this idea of having a gravitational document where people will refer and talk about that document during the negotiation is important instead of not having anything so people can come and just talk. Now we are going to have specific a specific document by UNEP with a list of the potential countermeasures, obligations, scope, and different elements for a plastic treaty that, if everything goes well, will result in zero draft for the negotiations for the INC 3, or the third round of negotiations, that will take place in November in Nairobi, Kenya. And this is kind of where we are right now. On the specific request for UNEP to work on a document listing potential elements, hey will use all the inputs received during the last week with the opinions from many governments, but also by stakeholders and there will be a possibility to send in written submissions so they can take that into consideration when developing this specific document, that is a list of all the potential provisions.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:31:32] And just to be clear, UNEP is the United Nations Environment Program, and you are saying that basically negotiations in these first two rounds are kind of building up towards what’s called a zero draft in these situations, basically a very rough draft of a potential treaty or outcome document of some sort. And that’s what you’re looking out towards in the coming months.
Andres Del Castillo [00:31:56] Exactly. This is where we are right now and of course, it will be intense in the next two years, because we all know that the topic is complex, and the task is difficult. So, we will see many intersectional discussions or a discussion that happens outside these formal rounds of negotiation schemes where countries by region will come together to start developing and concretizing what they want to see in a plastic treaty.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:32:33] All right. Well, Andres, thank you so much.
Andres Del Castillo [00:32:36] Thanks to you, Mark.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:32:44] Thank you for listening to Global Dispatches. Our show is produced by me, Mark Leon Goldberg, and edited and mixed by Levi Sharp.