World Talks on a Treaty to Control Plastic Pollution Are Set for Nairobi in February. How To Do So Is Still Up in the Air

Environmentalists want national limits on plastic waste, producer responsibility and caps on production. Industry favors better waste management and “advanced” chemical repurposing.

Workers carry and organize plastic bottles in the Dongxiaokou village on the outskirts of Beijing. Credit: Ryan Pyle/Corbis via Getty Images

Workers carry and organize plastic bottles in the Dongxiaokou village on the outskirts of Beijing. Credit: Ryan Pyle/Corbis via Getty Images

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Governments are taking steps to rein in plastic waste.

But none of what’s been done so far has been up to the challenge of a growing plastics industry fed by consumer demand for more plastic products, resulting in a deepening global plastic waste crisis.

As a result, there is now an intensifying focus on the possibility of a global treaty to control plastic pollution. 

The next milestone in a diplomatic process that began in 2014 could come in February, in Nairobi, Kenya, when the U.N. Environmental Assembly meets to decide if it will endorse the beginning of official negotiations over a plastics treaty.

Those efforts may have received a boost in late November, when Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the Biden administration would join the talks. Blinken, reversing a position from the Trump administration, said the U.S. goal is to “create a tool that we can use to protect our oceans and all of the life that they sustain from growing global harms of plastic pollution.”

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The chemical industry and environmental groups alike have welcomed U.S. engagement in formal treaty talks, with environmental groups like Greenpeace citing the need for global solutions to a global problem, and the chemical industry expressing hope that a treaty could help advance its vision of eliminating plastic waste. Separately, the industry has opposed suggestions that there be a cap placed on plastic production.

In backing the treaty process, Erin Simon, head of plastic waste and business for World Wildlife Fund, a conservation group that operates in 100 countries, cited a 2020 Pew Charitable Trusts report that said without “immediate, ambitious, and concerted actions,” the world by 2040 would see the annual flow of plastic into the ocean triple, to about 29 million metric tons per year, the equivalent of 2,500 single-use plastic bottles for every meter of ocean beach.

“That would continue to obviously create huge impacts on species through entanglement, ingestion and just messing up the ecosystems,” Simon said. “It would continue to create issues for coastal communities and local fisheries,” placing a significant toll on “public health and vulnerable communities in general, who are already disproportionately impacted.”

Devil in the Details

Cities, states and entire countries have banned single use plastics like grocery bags and straws. Some 187 nations, though not the United States, have agreed to restrict international trade in plastic scrap and waste. And Congress in November authorized $350 million for recycling and management of plastic waste, including the first funding for the 2020 Save Our Seas 2.0 Act to boost research, international cooperation, ocean cleanup and waste management.

With a treaty, the devil will be in the details and the hard work of getting enough countries to agree on the scope and provisions. Observers say the process could take years.

Conceptually, the countries supporting a new plastic treaty seem to be dividing into two schools of thought, said Björn Beeler, the international coordinator for the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), comprised of more than 600 public interest nongovernmental organizations in 128 countries working to eliminate toxic pollutants.

One school of thought focuses on a “lifecycle” approach that would take into account the impacts of plastics, from production to their use and disposal or recycling. It’s led by Rwanda and Peru, with support from the European Union, and could limit virgin plastic production and control the use of toxic chemicals that are added into plastic products, Beeler said.

The other takes a “waste management” approach and would focus more narrowly on strategies to control plastic waste. This orientation has been defined under a draft resolution from Japan, he said.

Environmentalists are pushing for restrictions on single use plastics like bags, cutlery and straws, making plastic producers responsible for plastic waste and enforceable national limits on the flow of plastics into the ocean.

Representatives of the pollutants elimination network said that to be effective, any treaty also needs to ban toxic chemical additives in plastics. On Dec. 14, IPEN and another environmental organization seeking to fight plastics pollution, International Pellet Watch, released two reports that detailed the presence of chemicals found in plastic pellets spilled on beaches and recycled plastic pellets purchased from recycling facilities globally. The groups are working with partner organizations in 35 countries.

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Health effects associated with the chemicals include cancer, and hormonal effects that can lead to reproductive, growth and cognitive impairment, according to the reports. 

“When you add chemicals to plastics, they are not strongly attached,” said Sara Brosché, an IPEN science advisor and lead author of one of the reports. “So they can leach out. They will slowly move into the household dust,” she said. When children put toys in their mouths, she added, “these chemicals can move out of plastic material,” and dissolve in their saliva. 

‘Bound up in the Health of Our Oceans’

It’s unclear what specifically the Biden administration wants out of a plastics treaty. But in making his announcement in November, Blinken said countries will need to “develop and enforce strong national action plans to address this problem at its source. We recognize that different actors will have different capacities to act, but every nation, every community, and indeed every individual has a role to play.”

He also said “the private sector in particular will need to do more.” 

Human health and survival is “bound up in the health of our oceans,” Blinken said, adding that plastic is sickening and killing ocean animals. “And because plastics absorb toxins, when we eat seafood, we’re not only consuming microplastics, but toxins as well,” he said.

IPEN, however, is concerned that the United States, one of the leading plastic producing nations in the world, will side with an industry that emphasizes waste management and so-called “advanced” or “chemical” recycling. A National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report in November concluded that, so far, chemical, or advanced, recycling is limited to energy intensive processes used to make fuel or other chemical products, rather than new plastics.

“If a treaty promotes waste management, and subsidizes chemical recycling, which is basically plastic fuels, waste-to-energy, or building up waste management facilities, then you begin to subsidize with public funds the responsibility of the private sector that’s making this product,” Beeler  said.

Industry’s Nod

In the United States, the plastics and chemical industries have fought state, local and Congressional efforts to ban plastics or cap plastic production. But the American Chemistry Council, a major lobbying arm of the chemical industry and one that Beeler described as a “powerful actor in this whole conversation,” has given a nod to Blinken’s announcement that the United States would back efforts to work on a global treaty.

“We are supportive of a global agreement among nations that will accelerate a transition to a more circular economy by expanding systems and infrastructure to collect and repurpose plastic resources,” said Joshua Baca, the American Chemistry Council’s vice president of plastics, in a written statement.

Baca said U.S. plastic makers, the International Council of Chemical Associations and the World Plastics Council support a treaty framework with principles that include having all nations agree to eliminating plastic waste, while providing flexibility to meet the needs of individual nations. They also want widespread access to waste collection, along with “recognizing the role plastics play in a lower-carbon future.”

The industry argues that plastics actually reduce emissions blamed for causing global warming, for example, by making products lighter and easier to transport, and because plastic packaging better keeps food fresh longer, reducing food waste and methane emissions. For a more sustainable future, the Plastics Industry Association says, “we need more plastic, not less”

The industry’s position on plastics and global warming, however, runs counter to recent studies that show plastics production and disposal, from production to disposal, are adding to global greenhouse gas emissions, and will only get worse.

The Center for International Environmental Law, working with the Environmental Integrity Project, FracTracker Alliance and others, in 2019  concluded that the plastics’ and petrochemical industries’ worldwide growth plans could make it impossible to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the most challenging benchmark established under the 2015 Paris climate agreement. 

The industry’s lifecycle emissions from natural gas extraction to plastics production and disposal was projected to rise to 1.34 billion metric tons per year by 2030, equivalent to the emissions from nearly 300 coal-fired power plants sized at 500-megawatts each, the study found.

In October, the group Beyond Plastics, led by former regional EPA administrator Judith Enck, published “The New Coal, Plastics and Climate Change,” which found that as coal plants close and petrochemical infrastructure expands in the United States, the plastics industry’s contribution to climate change will exceed that of coal by 2030.

When the diplomats get together in February, those from the United States may also find backing for strong action in the National Academies report, which concluded that the United States, the largest producer of plastic waste, needs a comprehensive strategy by the end of 2022 to curb its devastating impacts on ocean health and marine wildlife. It offered several overarching recommendations, including a national cap on the production of virgin plastic.

A Call for the Treaty 

A mix of businesses, some of which have been under withering pressure because of their use of single-use plastic packaging or bottles, are joining the call for a treaty. 

The World Wildlife Fund, with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Boston Consulting Group, in 2020 published a “Business Case for a UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution.” The report observed that “many companies are facing increased reputational risks” from their use of plastics, threatening their customer bases as well as their ability to attract employees. The report also noted that it was “no longer a question of whether regulation is coming, but what regulation is coming.”

Regulations already on the books vary so much from jurisdiction to jurisdiction—including bans against plastic bans—that it has become “increasingly difficult for businesses to navigate the maze of heterogeneous regulations, at global, national and even subnational levels,” according to the report.

The three organizations have a “manifesto,” now backed by dozens of businesses, acknowledging that plastic “plays an important role in our lives and brings many benefits,” but that “mounting evidence shows this problem will continue to grow unless we fundamentally rethink the way we produce, use, reuse, and dispose of plastic.” So far, about 90 companies have signed on, including financial institutions, producers, retailers and brand owners, such as Fidelity International, Sodexo, Coca Cola and Procter &  Gamble.

There has also been a series of summits this year about a plastics treaty between activists and industry representatives, organized by The Ocean Plastics Leadership Network, a 90-member group assisted by World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace that is working “not to achieve consensus, but understanding and hopefully new ideas and collaborations,” according to its website.

While a treaty could be years away, Simon, with the World Wildlife Fund, said she expects there could be progress along the way, in part because the process will further reveal the problems with plastic waste and potential solutions.

Because urgent action is needed, she said, “I’m going to be less caught up in how long it’s going to take and more about if the right topics are being discussed to signal the actions I need to see.”