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A status check on the UN’s plastic waste agreement

Is this a case of all pain, no gain?

Inside a plastic recycling plant.

Inside a plastic recycling plant. Image via Shutterstock/Nordroden

Plastic pollution is a serious threat to human health and the environment. After years of awareness-raising, there is strong and widespread alignment on the need to act. This was the unmistakable and welcome message from the U.N.’s first negotiating session on a global agreement to end plastic waste in December.  

The debate now turns to what kind of agreement is needed and which solutions to advance. We believe a successful agreement will create and enable global circularity by putting smart global guidelines and catalysts in place. This means the agreement must tackle plastic recycling, for without a functioning recycling system there can be no circular economy.

While plastic recycling rates have remained stubbornly low, the fixes are within reach. They include modernizing or modifying collection to reach all populations; improving sortation for more homogenous bales; and advancing new technologies for plastics that aren’t mechanically recycled.

Other fixes include using proven extended producer responsibility (EPR) systems to finance expansions and new technology; providing incentives for using circular materials; and using standards and regulation to provide certainty and a level playing field to discourage linear disposal options such as dumps and landfill.

Unfortunately, much of the initial discussion on an agreement has focused on so-called "high ambition" outcomes — such as holding polluters to account and reducing plastic production. While extracting a pound of flesh from producers may provide a certain schadenfreude, producer pain will not magically create the large systemic gains we actually need.

A more ambitious and critical focus is to build a sustainable global circular economy.

Leaving aside practical, political and economic considerations, simply limiting production in signatory countries ignores that we must still manage waste from goods the world continues to use, not to mention the volume of legacy waste already in our environment. Together, these proposals seem punitive rather than enabling or incentivizing — in other words, all stick and no carrot. Ambitions built entirely on limits do not nurture ecosystems; they stifle them.

We agree that no single or quick solution will suit every country. And there is certainly an important role for plastic use reduction, alternatives and reuse models in reducing waste. But those solutions do not require a global agreement. Instead, a more ambitious and critical focus is to build a sustainable global circular economy which captures and manages the plastic feedstock (or "waste," when mismanaged), which we will still generate.

More important, discussions have not considered the scope, scale and conditions needed to kick into gear scaled, thriving circular systems. For example, because domestic circularity will be hard to achieve in many countries, new waste ecosystems and international supply chains will be needed to move qualified feedstock across borders. If negotiations are serious about reducing plastic waste through a global circular economy, then there needs to be equally serious debate on these critical enablers:

1. Expand certified trade

Recent Basel Convention amendments successfully reduced trade in contaminated or under-processed plastic waste; the amendments also had the unintended effect of restricting trade in recyclable used plastic. In many parts of the world, plastic processing capacity is significantly underused, while usable waste feedstock accumulates nearby in countries lacking processing capacity.

Negotiators can address this imbalance by revisiting Basel amendments and encouraging new and efficient systems that build novel trade relationships in verified circular feedstock.

2. Feedstock availability

Lack of access to reliable quantities of adequate recycled material is a significant barrier to achieving a circular economy. New platforms are needed to identify and characterize feedstock, and then to match buyers and sellers in markets where there are qualified competitive advantages, so that markets can emerge to supply increasing demand.

Negotiators can help by encouraging market development, standardized or harmonized material definitions, and transparent regulations for "fit-for-purpose" trade and feedstock certification. This should also include incentives to unite recovered plastic feedstock streams with operators, converters and users.

3. Investment

Studies repeatedly identify waste management as an underfunded infrastructure asset class, particularly compared to energy, transportation and investments where the societal economic benefit is more self-evident.

Negotiators can help by incentivizing and prioritizing public, institutional and entrepreneurial investment in waste management, and by ensuring that the benefits of waste management reach marginalized communities. Investing in plastic circularity can deliver economic value, job creation, advance decarbonization goals and reduce the societal cost of pollution. Even small investments in collection and sorting can empower people and catalyze change at scale.

4. Incentives to innovative

Current systems are incapable of handling waste generated today, and even less so tomorrow. Simply tweaking the status quo won’t work.

Negotiators can help by putting supports, guarantees and other economic incentives in place to encourage innovation in new materials, technologies, and systems; embracing positive economic incentives such as price floors for the use of recycled content; and enacting policies that support entrepreneurs and job creators working to advance the global circular economy. This will have a particularly beneficial impact in preventing plastic going to landfill or being openly burned.

The debate on climate proved that a global agreement is just the first step in a long process. Even with seemingly broad consensus on the need for renewable energy, for example, the technologies and systems to generate, deliver and store that energy took decades to build. It has required significant economic support and patience, with early incremental gains and sometimes frustrating setbacks.

Achieving a circular economy will require a concerted, long-term strategy that aligns business, finance and policy leaders.

Achieving a circular economy will similarly require a concerted, long-term strategy that aligns business, finance and policy leaders. We must leverage the knowledge of early adopters and value chain alliances to build on their success. We will only succeed by creating an efficient engine for the reuse of plastic through globally integrated supply chains using waste as a feedstock and processing products on the back end.

We urge negotiators to focus on building a resilient global circular economy ecosystem to solve plastic pollution without defaulting to a counter-productive "all pain, no gain" regime based on controls, limits and restrictions. Focusing only on production caps, narrow definitions, content mandates, excluded technologies and punitive action runs counter to the conditions that can build and nurture a circular economy, and the "gain" we’re striving to achieve. Let’s not miss the chance to deliver lasting change.

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