/ 7 December 2022

Talks over global plastic treaty were a mixed bag

Plastics industry needs policing
The first round of plastic treaty negotiations saw positive outcomes but oil producing countries, at the behest of big oil and petrochemical companies, could dominate the treaty discussions. (Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

The first session of negotiations to build a global, legally-binding treaty on plastics pollution recently concluded in Uruguay with a “mix of high and low points”, according to Break Free From Plastic, a coalition movement aiming to slash plastic waste.

The negotiations have set the stage for a two-year process that could result in a significant multilateral environmental agreement, it said.

Last week, more than 2 000 delegates from 160 countries gathered in Punta del Este, for the first meeting of the intergovernmental negotiating committee (INC-1), which was convened by the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep). 

In March, governments endorsed a historic resolution to forge an international legally-binding agreement by 2024, addressing plastic pollution from extraction to disposal.

Plastics crisis

According to Unep, every minute the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic is dumped in the sea. “Approximately seven billion of the 9.2 billion tonnes of plastic produced from 1950 to 2017 became plastic waste, ending up in landfills or dumped.”

A report by the INC secretariat, prepared ahead of the plastics negotiations, notes how plastic production and consumption is set to triple by 2060 if business continues as usual.

Plastic production is associated with the use of chemical additives, many of which are of concern for human and environmental health, while plastic pollution is lethal for many species. 

Throughout its life-cycle, plastic contributes to climate change. In 2019, plastics generated 1.8 billion metric tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions — 3.4% of global emissions — with 90% of those emissions coming from plastics production and conversion from fossil fuels, the report said. 

“The resource-inefficient, linear, take-make-waste plastic economy is at the core of the plastic pollution crisis,” said the report. “Solving the crisis requires shifting economic incentives towards safe, efficient and circular uses of plastic in the economy and acknowledging that some uses cannot be made circular and may need to be eliminated from the economy unless they are essential.” 

Recognition for waste pickers

Break Free from Plastic said that positive outcomes from the first round of negotiations included demands calling for reductions in plastic production and use, eliminating toxic substances associated with the plastic life cycle, protecting human health, and need for a just transition, backed by many member states and “even two of the worst plastic polluters, Nestle and Unilever”.

The participation of member states from Latin American, the Caribbean, African and Pacific nations, especially small island developing states, at the negotiations, brought a “strong voice for urgency and high ambition in these treaty negotiations”. 

The leadership of waste pickers resulted in the launch of the Just Transition Initiative, which will ensure their representation at future INCs. More than 20 million worldwide people work as waste pickers.

Maddie Koena, of the delegation of International Alliance of Waste Pickers, welcomed the widespread recognition of the vital role waste pickers play. “Now countries need to design the treaty with our livelihoods and human rights in mind. Personally, I’m very pleased to see my country of South Africa leading the way on this, alongside Kenya, by launching the Just Transition Initiative as a joint initiative with the International Alliance of Waste Pickers and other stakeholders,” Koena said.


Break Free from Plastic said one of the most contentious topics, the adoption of the Rules of Procedure that will determine how states and organisations can participate in future negotiations, has yet to be finalised and was moved to INC-2 in May 2023.

It said “precious” negotiation time was spent discussing the multi-stakeholder forum, despite it not being included in the mandate to develop the treaty and the “entire enterprise appears to be an effort to divert and prevent the voices of civil society and rights holders from direct and more meaningful forms of participation in the treaty development process”. 

Fossil fuels

Reuters reported that the negotiations ended with an agreement to end plastic pollution but was split on whether goals and efforts should be global and mandatory, or voluntary and country-led. 

It reported that the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution, a grouping of 45 countries, was pitted against countries including the United States and Saudi Arabia, home to the top plastic and petrochemical firms. The coalition wants the treaty to be based on mandatory global measures, including curbs on production, while the US and Saudi Arabia, for example, want country-driven pledges, it said.

Andrés Del Castillo, an attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law, said: “Over this week, we have seen multiple interventions raising whether the future treaty will be based on national action plans, or global, mandatory targets. We know that this will be top of the agenda at INC-2. The failure of countries to fulfil their emissions reduction plans under the Paris Agreement shows that we cannot afford another treaty that centres on the whims of its leaders.”

United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres said: “Plastics are fossil fuels in another form and pose a serious threat to human rights, the climate and biodiversity.” 

As negotiations towards an agreement continue, he called on countries to look beyond waste and “turn off the tap on plastic”.

Ambitious goals

Joan Marc, the executive director of Zero Waste Europe, said it was encouraging to see how the majority of countries supported goals to change the way plastic was used but warned against the system allowing a few oil and plastic producing countries to veto the decisions of the majority. 

Graham Forbes, the global plastics project lead at Greenpeace USA, said: “We cannot let oil producing countries, at the behest of big oil and petrochemical companies, dominate and slow down the treaty discussions and weaken its ambition. If the plastics industry has its way, plastic production could double within the next 10 to 15 years, and triple by 2050 — with catastrophic impacts on our planet and its people.”

Eirik Lindebjerg, the global plastics policy lead at the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, said the momentum demonstrated at the negotiations was a promising sign that an ambitious treaty would be reached by the end of the negotiations.

He said the next stage of negotiations would be more challenging, because countries must agree on the technical measures and rules. “Although in the minority, there are also some powerful opponents of global rules and standards, which risk potentially weakening obligations on countries to take action. The push for an ambitious global plastics treaty has only just begun.”