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Two Steps Forward

How a global treaty could solve the plastic waste crisis

Can plastics achieve par with climate and biodiversity as critical issues worthy of a global treaty? We’re about to find out.

Illustration of globe surrounded by plastic soda bottles.

GreenBiz photocollage, via DALL-E

Next week in Paris, a United Nations-sponsored gathering of nations, business groups and activists will gather to advance a treaty aimed at curbing plastic pollution worldwide.

If done thoughtfully and comprehensively, the treaty could be a game-changer. But that’s a two-liter-sized "if." The open question is whether the measures being considered are sufficient to stem the still-growing tide — or is it a tsunami now? — of plastic waste, including the empty packaging and other detritus already overwhelming the world’s landscapes and waterways.

The quest for a Global Treaty on Plastic Pollution, a legally binding agreement, was set in motion late last year at the First Session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution, known in U.N. parlance as INC-1. The follow-up meeting, INC-2, begins May 29. It will attempt to zero in on the thorny issues the treaty should address. The goal is to have a final draft ready for ratification in 2024.

Among those thorny issues, according to a U.N. document issued in April: potentially banning or phasing out certain polymers and plastics; reducing the dispersion of microplastics into the air, water and soil; encouraging circular designs of products and packaging; cleaning up plastics already in the environment; and facilitating a just transition, "including an inclusive transition of the informal waste sector" in developing economies. (Hyperlink added.)

It seems we've come a long way from the days, not very long ago, of fretting over plastic straws.

The treaty is part of a growing wave of concern by investors, regulators, activists and brands about the impact of plastics on the environment and human health. Last year, for example, at Amazon’s annual general meeting, just under a majority — 48 percent — of shareholders voted in favor of a resolution, submitted by the activist group As You Sow, asking the e-commerce giant to disclose its growing plastic packaging use.

We've come a long way from the days, not very long ago, of fretting over plastic straws.

This month, as my colleague Jesse Klein reported, the advocacy group CDP announced it will start collecting data about companies' use of plastics in order to provide greater visibility over how they are contributing to the plastic waste crisis. Companies are being asked to disclose their "most problematic" production and use of plastic polymers, durable plastics and plastic packaging.

All this is taking place at a time when the production and consumption of plastics continues its unyielding growth. Global plastics production doubled during the first two decades of the 21st century, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. According to its "Global Plastics Outlook: Policy Scenarios to 2060," plastic waste is on track to nearly triple by 2060 worldwide, with around half going into landfill and less than a fifth recycled.

Wrote the report’s authors: "Without radical action to curb demand, increase product lifespans and improve waste management and recyclability, plastic pollution will rise in tandem with an almost threefold increase in plastics use driven by rising populations and incomes." The report estimated that almost two-thirds of plastic waste in 2060 will be from short-lived items such as packaging, low-cost goods and textiles.

The runup to INC-2 has seen the publication of other reports on the plastics problems. Last week, the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) published "Turning off the Tap: How the world can end plastic pollution and create a circular economy," examining the economic and business models needed to address plastics’ impacts, from reuse to sustainable plastic alternatives. Also last week, the advocacy group WWF published "Breaking down high-risk plastic products: Assessing pollution risk and elimination feasibility of plastic products," which aimed "to identify and prioritize plastic product groups with the highest pollution risk, and the control measures that would be most suitable to address them."

Supply or demand?

So, how could a global treaty change the game? I recently asked several observers tracking the issue to weigh in on the prospects for the treaty, and what it will need to do to bend the growth curve of plastic consumption and waste.

"The argument behind why we need a treaty is that you have this globally traded commodity and everyone's playing by a different set of rules," John Duncan, who leads WWF’s global initiative, No Plastics in Nature, explained to me. "So, I think the logic for a global treaty, to bring about standardization and create global rules and a level playing field, is very important."

There are two basic approaches, Duncan explained: supply and demand. Supply-side initiatives include placing caps on production, increasing the supply of recovered plastics and improving the sustainability of plastics and alternative materials and products.

"That’s quite challenging," Duncan said. Among other things, it requires improving recycling systems, which have been notoriously bad at collecting and processing most types of plastic. "You could be shooting yourself in the foot by trying to tackle it from a supply-side approach."

Broad-based bans are similarly problematic, Duncan said. "It's easy to default to, ‘Plastic is the devil and we need to get rid of it.’ I think that's a very naive approach. Plastic has a number of very important applications but we have broadly lost sight of what those applications are."

Balancing the supply-demand equation will be one of the wicked problems facing treaty negotiators.

On the demand side, solutions include helping increase demand for recycled plastics and leveling the playing field — the price and performance — between virgin and recycled plastics. That could involve some combination of taxes on virgin materials, recycled content standards, targeted procurement requirements and consumer education.

Balancing the supply-demand equation will be one of the wicked problems facing treaty negotiators.

Montreal or Paris?

Another key question is: Should the treaty’s approach be narrowly focused, as with the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, which has largely phased out the production and use of ozone-depleting chemicals, or more broadly, as in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change?

There are pluses and minuses for each.

The Montreal Protocol focused on a single category of chemicals, the use of which was almost entirely business-to-business. It had an unambiguous goal: eliminating the production and use of ozone-depleting substances.

The process worked. "We have the thickest ozone level layer that we've had for 100 years because we just actually did it," Duncan noted.

The Paris Agreement, in contrast, set broad goals around a mind-boggling swath of the global economy, from electricity production and agriculture to transportation and the built environment, involving both business and consumer behavior. It relies on each nation to create its own roadmap and set its own targets — never mind that the sum of those targets doesn’t necessarily add up to the stated goals of the treaty. Still, it got every nation involved in addressing and, in some cases reinventing, a wide range of economic activity.

"With plastic, every single industry in the world uses it for something," Doug Woodring, founder and managing director of the Ocean Recovery Alliance (and an occasional GreenBiz contributor), explained. "There are too many types, there's no standardization and it's spread across the world to consumers, so it's very different than controlling the tap, which is what Montreal was about."

Therein lies the dilemma: The Montreal goal was clear and focused around a small set of chemicals; the Paris approach is broad, flexible and subject to implementation (and interpretation) by each nation or subnational entity.

What’s the best approach for plastic? It will be up to the INC-2 delegates and their influencers in Paris to sort it out.

Of course, both activists and business interests — fossil fuel and chemical producers and major brands — will be out in full force seeking to shape the conversation. At INC-1, in Punta del Este, Uruguay, in December, which mainly concerned itself with procedural matters, activists bemoaned "the presence of leading corporate polluters in the negotiation process and the lack of transparency from [UNEP] on how many of them are hiding behind NGO badges."

Next week will likely see a continuation of that activist-corporate standoff. It will be interesting to watch.

The business response

Companies have ample reason to both advance and forestall a global treaty. "A lot of the challenges that companies face is that each country has a pipeline of five to 10 or 15 regulations, sometimes going in very different directions," WWF’s Duncan said. "Some places are pushing for biodegradable or bio-based plastics, some are banning plastics. I think companies are saying, ‘It’s actually cheaper if we could have a system that harmonized all these things.’ It would make a hell of a lot of sense."

As part of his role at WWF, Duncan is secretariat co-lead of the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty, which represents more than 80 financial institutions, nonprofits and companies from across the plastics value chain that have aligned on a shared vision. They view the treaty as key to accelerating progress in three areas: reducing plastic production and use through a circular economy approach; increasing the circulation "of all necessary plastics"; and preventing and remediating "hard-to-abate micro- and macro-plastic leakage into the environment."

Other business groups aren’t so gung-ho on solutions that curb plastic production. They include the American Chemistry Council (ACC), whose members represent large chemical and oil companies. As Reuters reported last year: "The Washington-based ACC is attempting to forge a coalition of big businesses to help steer treaty discussions away from production restrictions, according to an Oct. 21 e-mail sent from the trade group to a blind-copied list of recipients."

Another group, Global Partners for Plastics Circularity, a collaboration of the International Council of Chemical Associations ("the global voice of the chemical industry"), is advocating for a circular economy "in which plastic products and packaging are sustainably reused or recycled instead of discarded, enabled by a global agreement that unlocks industry innovation and global investment in plastics circularity." That is, its primary focus is on end-of-pipe solutions — the disposition of plastic at the end of its useful life, as opposed to reducing plastic use altogether or developing non-polluting alternatives.

Industry coalitions, it must be said, have often failed miserably at providing substantive and effective solutions to the plastic crisis. And that’s especially true for coalitions led by the industries that created the problem that needs to be solved.

As Jeva Lange wrote recently in the newsletter Heatmap Daily, "Plastics are the fossil fuel industry’s last stand."

"The challenge is that, at the treaty level, what we have to overcome is individual states or companies fighting for their own specific interests, as opposed to looking at the bigger picture," said Duncan. Moreover, he said, "We typically look at the costs associated with change and struggle to understand the opportunities associated with that change."

It's naive to look at it just as a waste problem because it's not. It's a systems problem.

Further complicating the corporate response is the fact that it’s unclear how many commitments already made by leading brands to reduce or eliminate plastic waste are on track.  

"Unfortunately, there hasn't been a lot of progress," Simon Fischweicher, head of corporations and supply chains at CDP North America, told me. "We've seen an increase in policy around single-use plastics. We've seen an increase in company commitment around single-use plastic. Yet we have not seen any decrease in plastic waste. In fact, we've only seen an increase in the amount of plastic production and waste. And we know that, at least in the United States, 85 percent of plastic ends up in the landfill. So, there really hasn't been much progress in terms of recycling, reusing or reducing anything around single-use plastic."

That lack of data, and plastic’s link to the climate crisis, is what led CDP to launch its recent plastics disclosure initiative, Fischweicher said.

"We made the decision that in order to address the climate crisis, we needed to address the nature crisis, and that includes ocean health," he explained. "Plastic pollution and microplastic particles are significantly damaging the health and biodiversity of our oceans, which serve as major carbon sinks and are critical for human society and nature overall." The treaty, he said, could significantly advance that goal.

It will be up to those congregating in Paris next week to determine whether and how plastics can achieve par with climate and biodiversity as critical issues worthy of a global treaty. Already, critics such as Doug Woodring are pointing out the flaws of the treaty approach.

For starters, Woodring told me, the treaty "doesn't deal with existing inventory," meaning "all of the stuff that is already out there, which could get recovered and repurposed in some manner, even if it's for energy but also for concrete or asphalt or new materials that are plywood replacements."

Moreover, he said, the proposed treaty is more about tweaking the existing system than reimagining it. "There's no rethink on how to collect plastic in a better way and get it to the brands that have made huge commitments to use it. That's the giant missing piece that is not being addressed."

John Duncan agrees. "It's naive to look at it just as a waste problem because it's not. It's a systems problem. You want the right materials to be used in the right places. And when they are being used in the right places, you need the right systems to manage them effectively.”

But even the critics see hope in next week’s treaty negotiations.

"This is just stage two of a many-stage process," Woodring said. "It's not going to be the end of the treaty discussion. It’s just part of the process to get to the next meeting." Indeed, the U.N. already has mapped out future meetings: INC-3 in November, in Kenya; INC-4 next spring, in Canada; and INC-5 in fall 2024, in South Korea.

Concluded Woodring: "I think there will be a lot of good things that come out of this regardless of what the final answer is."

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