The Platform

Dustan Woodhouse

The UN negotiations now underway on a future global plastics treaty face an uphill climb.

As the United Nations convenes to forge a forward path on a proposed global plastics treaty, the challenges are monumental. An expansive coalition of scientific organizations is calling for a formidable and comprehensive agreement that spans the entire life cycle of plastic, from its creation to its ultimate disposal. They are pressing for an accord that enshrines binding targets for the reduction of plastic production, enhancement of recycling, and prevention of environmental pollution, along with crucial support for nations in treaty implementation.

Their demands are emphatic: impose a definitive cap on plastic production to stem the tide of plastics entering our ecosystems; instate ambitious reduction goals for single-use plastics to curb their pervasive use and consequent discard; and negotiate an expansion of plastic recycling initiatives and pollution-prevention measures, including prohibitions on microbeads and advancements in waste management practices. Furthermore, they insist on the provision of financial and technical aid to enable countries to effectively enact the treaty’s articles.

As we venture into the forthcoming stages of treaty discussions, Julie Teel Simmonds, a seasoned expert in these proceedings, insists that an unerring focus on reducing plastic production is paramount to resolving the crisis. “If we make fewer plastic products, air and water pollution across the plastics lifecycle will decrease and less plastic will ultimately end up in the ocean, wildlife, and our bodies. A treaty won’t be successful unless it starts with that phase-down objective.”

From the standpoint of the United States, a significant producer and consumer of plastics, Simmonds appeals for the U.S. to adopt a more robust stance in the negotiations, aligning with nations that are pushing for mandatory, ambitious, and enforceable actions to mitigate plastic production, consumption, and pollution.

Currently, the U.S. stance reflects low ambition, signaling a readiness to propose weaker provisions instead of embracing firm global mandates.

Nonetheless, I remain cautiously hopeful that the U.S. delegation will be swayed by the compelling scientific evidence, the unacceptable risks presented, and the persuasive arguments of other countries that are committed to taking swift, decisive actions to preserve health, climate, and biodiversity.

Landfill in Jawa Barat, Indonesia
Landfill in Jawa Barat, Indonesia. (Fiqri Aziz Octavian)

At the United Nations, there is a keen awareness that the environmental and social harms inflicted by plastic waste and pollution have catalyzed a wave of new national government laws and policies, particularly those targeting the regulation of single-use plastic products. However, the policies being crafted by various countries and cities are not consistently comprehensive or effective, often lacking explicit guidance.

“Single-use plastic products,” a term coined for plastics designed for a singular use before disposal, are now subject to increasing regulation by governments intent on mitigating the environmental, social, and health impacts associated with plastic waste and pollution.

During the UN negotiations, the myriad of regulatory approaches employed at national and regional levels are under intense scrutiny and debate. The goal is to address the detrimental environmental impacts of marine plastic litter and pollution emanating from single-use plastic products.

Debates are ongoing about establishing new global regulations that would govern plastic production and consumption in manners designed to diminish the harmful impacts of single-use plastic products. Other strategies are aimed at fostering the adoption of alternatives and improving the life-cycle management, recycling, and disposal of single-use plastic waste.

For instance, bans and restrictions are being considered that would directly prohibit the production, importation, distribution, sale, or use of certain single-use plastic products.

Economic tools are being debated that would either impose taxes to deter the production or use of single-use plastics or provide fiscal incentives to encourage the adoption of alternative products.

Product standards, certification, and labeling requirements are being discussed as means to promote sustainable alternatives or to reduce the harm of single-use plastics.

Among the prominent regulatory approaches are extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes, which entail a blend of regulatory methods to extend the responsibility of manufacturers for their single-use plastic products throughout their entire life cycle, inclusive of the disposal phase.

Concurrently, other regulatory methods have been legislated to shift consumer and producer behaviors, such as educational programs, incentives for reuse, and public-private partnerships.

A flurry of global initiatives is gathering pace, all intending to tighten regulations in ways that will diminish the waste streams. Observing these initiatives, it becomes a matter of speculation about what will unfold in the months and years ahead.

These multilateral agencies have major initiatives underway, with substantial funds involved — indeed, tens of billions of dollars are at stake.

At the heart of America’s diplomatic efforts to confront the oceanic expanse of plastic waste lies the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES), a division within the U.S. State Department, steering the ship through the tumultuous waters of international negotiations. During the inaugural assembly in Uruguay, aimed at crafting a global treaty to combat plastic pollution, the U.S. delegation tabled proposals that underscored their vision for a treaty that is not only bold and pragmatic but also enforceable.

The stance of the U.S. government is clear: it champions a framework that ambitiously targets the reduction of plastic pollution, especially advocating for a gradual cessation of the most damaging single-use plastics. Central to their proposal is the creation of binding obligations for countries to achieve these targets, accompanied by robust enforcement mechanisms to ensure adherence.

The envisioned treaty, according to U.S. officials, would not only set ambitious benchmarks but also foster innovation and the transfer of technology. This would support nations in their quest to mitigate plastic pollution and particularly assist developing countries in surmounting these challenges.

In a display of flexibility, U.S. negotiators have expressed openness to a treaty that amalgamates both voluntary and mandatory measures, provided it retains its ambitious and effective character.

Yet, this American posture has not been without its detractors. Environmental advocacy groups have leveled criticism at the U.S. for what they perceive as a lack of ambition. These organizations advocate for a treaty with more stringent measures: a definitive cap on plastic production, a comprehensive phase-down of all single-use plastics, and stronger enforcement mechanisms. They argue that the U.S.’s current stance falls short of addressing the gravity of the global plastic pollution crisis.

In defense, the U.S. government articulates its strategy as both realistic and attainable, cautioning against overly ambitious targets that might prove unfeasible in negotiation and implementation, potentially rendering the treaty ineffective. Economic considerations, particularly the implications of a binding production cap, are also at the forefront of the U.S. negotiators’ minds.

As the U.S. government navigates these contentious waters, it finds itself caught between the Scylla of environmental advocacy’s push for greater ambition and the Charybdis of industry resistance. The representatives underscore the necessity of balancing these divergent interests to forge a treaty that is both impactful and achievable, a testament to the delicate dance of diplomacy in the face of a crisis that threatens the very waters that sustain our planet.

This article was originally posted in Tomorrow’s Affairs.

While advocating for systemic change over 4 decades, Gordon Feller has been called upon to help leaders running some of the world’s major organizations: World Bank, UN, World Economic Forum, Lockheed, Apple, IBM, Ford, the national governments of Germany, Canada, US – to name a few. With 40 years in Silicon Valley, Feller’s 300+ published articles cover the full spectrum of energy/environment/technology issues, reporting from more than 40 countries. Obama/Biden appointee to Federal comm. on innovation; Global Fellow at The Smithsonian; Winner: Prime Minister Abe Fellowship, Japan.