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Values Proposition

Failure is an option: We already know the outcome of global plastic waste negotiations

Delegates at the final U.N. meeting in November will likely fail to produce a binding international treaty that will reverse the growing trend of plastic pollution.

Plastic water bottles polluting the ocean

Source: Shutterstock/chaiyapruek youprasert

Delegates negotiating an international plastic waste treaty recently completed their fourth negotiating session in Ottawa, Canada, and have scheduled their fifth and final meeting for November in Busan, South Korea. Their goal is to achieve a legally binding international treaty to curb plastics pollution, including the marine environment. They are a long, long way from that goal.  

Four statistics tell the story of the need for and the obstacles of drafting an international treaty:

Advocates of an ambitious treaty have a plan

Environmental advocates, including the Ocean Conservancy, have proposed an eight-point plan to address plastics in the ocean. Their proposals include establishing a national reduction target for single-use plastics; requiring extended producer responsibility (EPR) for packaging at the national level; assessing the environmental impacts and social costs of plastics pollution across the lifecycle; reducing levels of microplastics to protect human health; and mitigating climate change and environmental justice harms by curbing plastics pollution. 

"High ambition" countries from the European Union and Japan echo the need for plastics production limits, as does the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty, a coalition of over 200 companies including Unilever and Walmart.

Opponents of an ambitious treaty have greater leverage

Despite the advocacy of non-governmental organizations, individual nations or companies, the power to shape the treaty’s final outcome will rest upon three factors. First is the ruling of the United Nations Environment Programme, the official convener of the negotiations, that decisions are to be made by a consensus of the participating nations, not by the majority. This inherently strengthens the negotiating leverage of those in favor of a minimalist treaty rather than "high ambition" countries or companies that endorse EPR or mandatory recycling goals.

Second is the significant influence wielded by private-sector fossil fuel and petrochemical producers and their state enterprise allies in the Middle East, China, Russia and other nations. The enormity of their capital investments and anticipated market growth, and associated revenues and job opportunities during the next decade and beyond, have persuaded many developing country delegates that a final treaty should embody more minimalist obligations that include expanded infrastructure for waste collection and management and provisions that encourage enhanced recycling in a manner that doesn’t significantly increase business costs.

Third is the resistance of the United States to require limits on plastics production. The U.S. State Department on April 30 decried "overly prescriptive approaches" that could discourage "major producers or consumers of plastics" from signing on to a final agreement. Instead, the U.S. is focused on strengthening recycling and reuse practices rather than production limits. 

Treaty results

The road to a final treaty in Busan, South Korea will be paved with bracketed text, furious lobbying and outcomes frustrating to both sides. Delegates will likely fail to produce a legally binding international treaty that will reverse the growing trend of plastic pollution. Like the 1997 Kyoto Protocol that slowed but did not stem the increase in greenhouse gases, an agreement in Busan will contribute to slowing the rate of accumulating plastic wastes but will not solve the burgeoning problem.

Delegates will agree on language to institute plastic waste infrastructure upgrades that manage risks by better enabling both municipalities and nations to collect municipal and industrial sources of waste. They will also commit to enhance recycling through the use of chemical or mechanical technologies or their more advanced versions. The petrochemical industry, in particular, is enamored with this alternative and is making investments for its expansion. Third, there will be a modest win in establishing a mechanism for financing and capacity building in plastic-waste-management systems to facilitate collection, recycling and reuse of plastic materials. Efforts to require limits on single-use plastics face an uphill battle.

A large contingent of senior business executives migrated to Ottawa to advance their treaty agenda. In the words of Braskem (a polyethylene maker) executive vice president Mark Nikolich, "If we have this agreement…it gives us direction, it gives us some certainty of path in the future."  

Given the limited treaty outcomes, certainty is unlikely to be delivered. Treaty delegates and their stakeholders should, instead, view these negotiations as Phase 1 of an extended series of treaty protocols over the next several decades. Between 2025 and 2040, likely scenarios include vast new volumes of plastic wastes, accelerating pressures on brands and consumers to alter their use of plastics, public/private sector investments in newer technologies (hydrogen, modular nuclear energy) that decouple the dependence of plastics production from hydrocarbon fuels, and more explicit interdependencies between climate mitigation policies and plastics manufacturing.  

This round of treaty negotiations will likely "fail" to resolve the fundamental challenges of the current plastic waste problem. But failure can be a time-limited concept, and neither technology, business strategy, public policy nor consumer behavior are likely to remain static.

Terry F. Yosie has held senior leadership positions at the U.S. EPA and in the chemical and petroleum industries and, most recently, he served as president and CEO of the non-advocacy World Environment Center for 12 years. 

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