UNEA Resolution 5/14 entitled “End plastic pollution: Towards an international legally binding instrument”
We are now squarely facing our plastic pollution crisis. The world now recognizes that this synthetic material does not meaningfully degrade, carries toxic chemicals with it and is produced so cheaply that it is far more economical for businesses to continue to produce virgin plastic products than recycle or dispose of it, or even utilize alternatives. Nations around the world are gathering to negotiate an agreement that will end plastic pollution and address its unprecedented impacts on human health and the environment. As reported in GCSE's March 2022 essay, 175 member states adopted UNEA 5/14 Resolution to End Plastic Pollution (“Resolution”) by 2040. Pursuant to the Resolution, the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) consisting of delegates from member states and civil society observers, is meeting every six months beginning November 28, 2022 to develop an international legally binding instrument (ILBI) by 2024.
GCSE Senior Fellows Mary Ellen Ternes, Esq. and Dr. Jeffrey Seay, are participating as GCSE delegates to the UNEP INC negotiations toward an international legally-binding instrument pursuant to UNEA 5/14 Resolution to End Plastic Pollution.
The first INC session (INC-1) was held in Punta del Este, Uruguay, November 28 to December 2, 2022, with a multistakeholder session on November 26, 2022. The intense sessions, with over 2,300 delegates from 160 countries and stakeholder groups, can be characterized with this single statement offered by a delegate mid-way through the sessions, “We have one giant, global plastic pollution problem, and a thousand suggestions on how to solve it.”
Image credit: Jay van der Wolf
Actually, “a thousand suggestions” sounds manageable, given the prolific variability of plastics themselves. More than 10,000 additives are used to manufacture plastic products; over 2,400 of which are characterized by the European Union as persistent, bioaccumulative or toxic. With the many types of polymers combined with this variety of additives, we easily exceed 90,000 polymer and additive combinations in our post-use plastic mix. This variability renders recycling and energy recovery through pyrolysis or controlled combustion problematic, even in developed nations.
Global Issues With Plastic and Plastic Pollution
While plastic science is complicated, our global societies’ relationship with plastic and plastic pollution is complicated as well. Developed nations produce petroleum and plastic, and export plastic products around the world. Yet, developing nations do not generally have the means to safely manage plastic waste, whether waste resulting from imported plastic products, waste imported for recovery purposes or waste just washing up on their shores.
In many countries in the developing world, waste pickers have created a livelihood from plastic waste and play a critical role in waste management. Waste pickers often live in close proximity to landfills or dumps where they work daily collecting and sorting trash for recovery, reuse, and/or recycle. This way of life puts them in harm’s way when it comes to exposure to potentially harmful chemical additives leaching from plastic waste. At the INC-1 session, numerous delegates expressed concerns regarding the inclusion of voices and perspectives of marginalized groups, including waste pickers and Indigenous peoples.
Image credit: Stephane Bidouze
Despite the drawbacks however, plastic fills an important role in many uses, especially medical, energy and sanitation. Thus, it is clear we need to decide how we can use plastic safely without resulting in harmful plastic pollution, and to do so we must find the right balance between preserving utility and protecting against harm, for both developed and developing nations.
Convergence and Divergence at INC-1
Prior to the INC-1, coalitions expressed their views through roundtables, research work and pre-session statements. For example, the High Ambition Coalition (HAC) co-chaired by Norway and Rwanda, with forty countries including European Union members, are urging adoption of measures that will curb production, variability and toxicity, “turning off the tap” by closing the loop on plastic production beginning with elimination of problematic plastics, relying on bans, restrictions, design standards, transparency for polymer and additives, and sustainability requirements throughout the lifecycle of plastic.
At the INC-1, consensus was generally recognized regarding the scope of the ubiquitous environmental impacts of plastic pollution, along with the critical need to act quickly to protect the environment and human health from plastic pollution, and ultimately end plastic pollution. A comprehensive approach would address the entire plastic life cycle, including legacy plastic and pollution in all environments, materials, products, uses, processes from the polymerization phase, and feedstocks. Many themes continued throughout INC-1, including the refrain for design of the IPRI that “form follows function.” Other foundational themes included the precautionary and polluter pays principles, and significantly, fairness, given the inequities in both pollution burden and as well as product availability.
However, divergence exists between developed petroleum and polymer producing nations and other nations. Developing nations, which carry more of the burden of plastic pollution and less of the benefit, are sensitive to approaches which could perpetuate plastic pollution. Polymer producing nations are sensitive to approaches which could limit future plastic production.
The United States is supporting a bottom-up approach to the enforcement provisions, urging reliance on the Paris Agreement mechanism of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Nations that are urging for more aggressive action point to the top-down approach , similar to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which mandated phasing out of chlorofluorocarbons with enforceable provisions and ultimately succeeded in saving the ozone layer.
In addition to the issue of legally binding enforceability, disagreements have also emerged in overall approach, with some parties prioritizing reducing production through design and product limitations, while others prioritize a waste-focused recycling and combustion approach. Given the high volume and toxicity of additives in the post-use plastic universe, scientists are now expressing doubt about the safety of recycling, especially in less developed nations. While “reduce, reuse and recycle” is considered the foundation of a circular economy, stakeholders recognize the need to close the loop but also “make the circle smaller,” given the cumulative additive toxicities resulting from recycling current post-use plastic.
Despite the ongoing challenges to addressing global plastic pollution, there is a marked change in these negotiations. As one plastic policy advisor put it, "There has been a narrative shift." Whereas plastic pollution was previously characterized as a marine litter issue that endangered marine resources, it is now recognized as a ubiquitous, hazardous pollutant impacting the entire planet and posing a unique threat to human health and the environment.
Opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the GCSE or its members.