At Circularity 23’s opening keynotes last week in Seattle, participants got a hot-off-the-press dispatch from speakers who were on the ground at the global plastic treaty negotiations held in Paris the previous week. Referred to as "INC-2," the Paris meeting hosted the second round of negotiations for the UN Global Treaty to End Plastic Pollution, with delegates from 180 countries participating.
The keynote speakers at Circularity 23 were buoyed, and somewhat sleep-deprived, by the talks, which concluded with most countries agreeing to core treaty elements, including that any treaty be global and legally binding.
"(I'm) riding the wave," said Liz Nichols, foreign service officer at the U.S. State Department, who had arrived in Seattle from France just 12 hours prior.
"A lot of once in a lifetime, goosebump-raising moments," remarked Allison Lin, global vice president of packaging sustainability at Mars.
"It's a big deal, and it will impact everyone in this room in one way or another," said Rob Opsomer, executive lead for plastics and finance at Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
U.N. delegates will reconvene in November in Kenya to continue hammering out the details. The goal is to put a treaty in place in 2025.
"This process may have the image of being slow, but this one is actually going really, very fast," Opsomer said.
"It’s swift, but definitely at the speed that our planet needs," agreed Erin Simon, U.S. vice president for plastic waste and business at World Wildlife Fund. Simon said that despite the proliferation of voluntary initiatives, businesses setting targets to meet the global commitment, collective action and government policies, "what has not happened is slowing down plastic pollution."
She added: "We truly need this global alignment on how we're going to, as a global community, address this shared threat. And there has never been a major global crisis that has been solved without that global alignment."
'Zero draft' and levels of ambition
Nichols said that the talks were a success because the negotiators accomplished the principal task of the second meeting, which was to come to agreement on what a "zero draft," or a rough draft of the treaty with all of the options negotiators brought forth, would look like.
"That’s a big deal because that was not guaranteed," she said, adding, "It was a week of maybe even historic kind of drama and procedural meanderings," with the U.S. playing a pivotal role at unlocking some major procedural sticking points.
While the U.S. played a vital diplomacy role, some were critical that it fell short of supporting mandatory measures that would directly reduce plastic production and consumption, while other nations in the high-ambition group called for the treaty to prioritize bans or phaseouts of problematic chemicals and high-risk plastic products.
"I have no doubt the U.S. will get behind many measures to clean up and attempt to recycle more plastic," Julie Teel Simmonds, senior attorney, oceans at the Center for Biological Diversity, who attended the talks but did not speak on the panel, wrote in an email. "But I’m concerned that if they largely push for voluntary steps and focus on downstream waste and so-called circularity, we won’t get the change we need. Cutting production has to be a priority…"
All the Circularity 23 panelists urged companies to take action and spoke about the positive role that the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty, launched by WWF and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, played at the talks.
"It was really exciting to be part of this great thing that's bigger than yourself, with 100 companies coming together with a united voice to [say to] industry, to NGOs, to government [that] we wanted an ambitious effectively and legally binding treaty," Lin said, urging other companies to consider joining the business coalition.
It’s a "game changer … that businesses have been advocating for the higher level of ambition," agreed Simon in a follow-up phone call. "That is different from past treaties. I think it increases confidence with member states that they aren't doing it alone, that they can partner with companies to build the circular system, that companies are willing to invest."
Not all companies at the talks played such a positive role, however. "There was absolutely a very strong contingent of different observers who have different agendas from our coalition and from WWF," Simon said, in the follow-up call, alluding to fossil fuels companies.
Change is coming
Nichols urged companies to work with her as she develops the financial architecture for putting together the $3.4 trillion that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates is necessary to end plastic pollution. "A lot of that is public money; most of that is not, so I would love to work with you to find ways [to get] the private sector and the good internal investments you're already making in production and manufacturing … counted towards the objectives of the agreement."
Finally, Simon called on companies to come to terms with change: "No matter what this treaty looks like … it's going to change the way we do business. That is happening. So, it's time to get comfortable with that and think about your industry, your business, your sector and what that means for you and either get involved in shaping that circular economy or be ready for what comes down as a result of that."
Editor's note: A correction was made to this story. The U.S. did not join the high-ambition negotiating group, as previously stated.