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How the UN Plastics Treaty aims to tackle the pollution crisis

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(NEW YORK) — As Earth Day 2024 puts a spotlight on the world’s climate crisis, negotiators from 175 countries are gathering for the fourth round of the United Nations Plastics Treaty negotiations next week in Canada.

Held in Ottowa, Canada, from April 23-29, the last major round of negotiations will bring together the treaty’s Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) to draft a global, legally binding agreement by the end of 2024, according to the U.N.

The negotiations begin immediately following Earth Day on Monday, April 22.

“Global plastic production and consumption has grown exponentially since the 1950s and is set to increase by 70% by 2040 if business continues as usual,” the INC reported in a press release ahead of the negotiations.

“This requires a new, shared global vision where plastic pollution is not an option, coupled with the set of targets, policy instruments and mechanisms that will lead and enable the shift towards this vision,” the committee reported.

The agreement is titled “End Plastic Pollution: Towards an internationally legally binding instrument” and is expected to be finalized in late 2024 in Busan, Korea.

The INC previously met for negotiations in December 2022 in Uruguay, May 2023 in France and November 2023 in Kenya.

What is the UN Plastics Treaty?

The U.N. Plastics Treaty will be a legally binding global agreement between 175 countries that will dictate the action and timeline needed to mitigate the production and consumption of high-risk plastic, according to the intergovernmental organization.

Addressing the “full lifecycle of plastic from source to sea” the U.N. will bring together heads of state, ministers of environment and other representatives from U.N. Member States to agree upon the treaty.

According to the U.N.’s resolution, published after the negotiations in Kenya, some key points the treaty may include are:

  • Determining where the life cycle of plastic production begins, and potentially capping primary plastic polymer production.
  • The “Zero Draft” of the plastics treaty aims to promote better the sustainable production of plastics for packaging through product design and environmentally sound waste management
  • Addressing the world’s oceans, the treaty may aim to advance national and international cooperative plastic reduction measures aimed at pollution in marine environments.
  • Specifying national reporting to the INC, when appropriate, and assessing the progress and effectiveness of the agreement.
  • Initiating a multi-stakeholder action agenda, including the private sector, to promote cooperation at the local, national, regional and global levels.
  • The treaty may aim to specify arrangements for capacity-building and technical assistance, mutually agreed technology transfer terms and financial assistance.

These are key points that may not be in the finalized treaty, however, are areas of interest in the negotiation process.

Why plastics are a problem

The rate of plastic production has grown faster than any other man-made material since the 1970s, according to the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP).

Approximately 36% of all plastics produced are used in packaging, which includes single-use plastic for food and beverage containers, the U.N. reports, noting, approximately 85% of those single-use products end up in landfills or as unregulated waste.

If there is no action to mitigate the production of single-use plastics, global production is forecast to reach 1,100 million tonnes by 2050, the U.N. reports.

Approximately 98% of single-use plastic products are produced from fossil fuels, according to the U.N., and by 2040, fossil fuel-based plastics are forecast to grow to 19% of the global carbon budget by 2040.

“Plastic has been found everywhere, not only in ecosystems in the atmosphere, but also in the food we eat, the water we drink, and even inside of our bodies,” Renee Sharp, director of Plastics and Petrochemical Advocacy for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said during a webinar on April 17.

Serious human health problems associated with plastics include cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, respiratory issues, reproductive and hormone problems, asthma and more, according to Sharp.

Plastics may contain any mix of more than 16,000 different chemicals, and at least 4,200 of those chemicals are “highly hazardous to human and environmental health,” according to a PlastChem Project study, released in March.

“The science around plastic and the health of chemicals in plastic points to the need for a collective global response,” Sharp said. “This is not an issue that we can solve country by country, state by state — we really have to be thinking about this internationally.”

What experts are saying about the treaty

Inger Andersen, executive director of the UNEP, said the agreement is the most important international multilateral environmental deal since the Paris climate accord.

“It is an insurance policy for this generation and future ones, so they may live with plastic and not be doomed by it,” Andersen said in a press release following the treaty negotiations in Kenya.

A Greenpeace International survey published in April found 82% of respondents from 19 different countries support cutting the production of plastic to stop plastic pollution and 90% of respondents endorse transitioning away from single-use plastic packaging.

Graham Forbes, Greenpeace’s head of delegation to the Global Plastics Treaty negotiations believes, “The vast majority of people want a Global Plastics Treaty that cuts plastic production and ends single-use plastic. It is time for world leaders to listen and rise to the occasion,” he said in an April 4 press release.

Benny Mermans, chair of the World Plastics Council, said an “effective global agreement” is needed to “incentivize the billions of dollars of additional investment required to tackle plastic pollution,” he said in an April 15 press release.

“Our members are investing billions of dollars in infrastructure to scale-up the supply of circular plastics, so that used plastics are prevented from entering the environment as waste, landfill or via incineration, and instead become new plastics,” Mermans said.

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