Time is Running Out to Avert Plastics Catastrophe as Global Treaty Negotiations Reach Stalemate
UN experts have likened plastics pollution to a “toxic tidal wave” threatening human rights, health, and the environment.

The third round of international negotiations over a global plastics treaty has ended in a stalemate, leaving nations no closer to an agreement to stem the tide of plastic pollution that is choking the planet and endangering human health. 

The week-long talks at UN Environment Programme (UNEP) headquarters in Nairobi marked the halfway point towards the 2024 deadline set for nations to hammer out a binding international treaty addressing the “full life cycle” of plastics, as set out in a UN resolution adopted by 175 countries in 2022.

While UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen expressed optimism regarding the “forward motion of the negotiations towards a treaty that ends plastic pollution,” environmentalists, scientists, and civil society painted a different picture.

With only two rounds of negotiations remaining, a small but determined group of fossil fuel and plastic-producing nations, led by China, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia, is impeding progress and imperilling the prospects of a landmark treaty.

Petrochemicals are the building blocks of plastics and consume more fossil fuel-based energy than any other industry globally. Over 99% of virgin plastics are derived from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels.

“These negotiations have so far failed to deliver on their promise laid out in the agreed upon mandate to advance a strong, binding plastics treaty that the world desperately needs,” Ana Rocha, Global Plastics Policy Director of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) said in a statement. 

“We have only one year and two negotiating meetings left to hammer out this treaty, and we can’t afford to indulge the interests of a select few,” Rocha added. “They have nothing to lose, and we have everything to lose.”

Zero-draft marred by ‘endless debate’

The recent round of negotiations marked the first time delegations could debate a “zero-draft” of the treaty, a crucial stage in the process intended to allow countries to refine language, establish definitions for key terms, and define the treaty’s scope and power.

However, what began as a 31-page draft ballooned to a sprawling “revised zero-draft” of over 100 pages by the end of the week. The rapid expansion of the document – which now includes challenges to the definition of terms like “plastics” and “life cycle” – has raised concerns among national delegations and environmental groups, who fear that the extensive text will be more difficult to negotiate and narrow down to a final treaty.

In the final hours of the negotiations, a bloc of like-minded countries comprising Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia, stymied efforts for inter-sessional work between major negotiating sessions. This leaves the process without a framework to debate the extensive text between negotiations, or a clear path forward as it enters its next phase in Ottawa, Canada.

The Center for Environmental Law (CIEL), a non-profit observer to the negotiations, said the outcome sent “a clear warning that entertaining endless debate by those few who want to block progress at every turn is a recipe for inertia and eventual disaster”. 

“It’s clear the present process cannot overcome the coordinated opposition of those who block consensus and progress at every turn,” CIEL President Caroll Muffett said in a statement. “Absent a major course correction, Canada will host a polite but massive failure when talks resume in Ottawa next year.”

The outgoing chair of the International Negotiating Committee (INC), which is overseeing the negotiations, Gustavo Adolfo Meza-Cuadra Velasquez, was less pessimistic: “These past 10 days have been a significant step forward towards the achievement of our objective to develop an international legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution,” said Velasquez. “But it has also recalled [for] us that much remains to be done both in narrowing down our differences and in developing technical work to inform our negotiations.”

Production expands as plastics crisis mounts

In 2023, the “Plastic Overshoot Day”, the date when the amount of plastic waste outweighs the world’s ability to manage it, occurred on 28 July.

The plastics industry generates around $600 billion a year, and the oil and gas industry that produces the chemical components to make plastics is the eighth largest in the world, valued at $6.9 trillion annually.

Plastic production has quadrupled over the past 30 years, reaching 450 million tons in 2022, a remarkable figure for such a lightweight material. More than half of the nine billion tons of plastic ever produced have been generated since 2000.

The plastic industry is dominated by fossil fuel titans like Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil producer, and ExxonMobil, the global leader in plastic production. By 2025, plastics and other petrochemicals are forecast to be the leading cause of growth in oil demand. 

Industry estimates project that plastic production could double in the next 10 to 15 years and triple by 2050. Meanwhile, fossil fuel giants like ExxonMobil, Dow, Shell, Saudi Aramco and Sinopec are investing heavily in building new factories and retrofitting oil refineries around the world to increase petrochemical production to meet those targets. 

Under the cover of climate commitments, governments are following suit. 

Petrochemical production index in key countries and regions, according to a 2023 study by the University of Lund.

“While governments are committing to action on climate change and have signed up to initiatives tackling global plastic pollution, massive investments are being made to expand the production capacity in the petrochemical sector, not least in the Middle East, China and the USA,” according to a 2023 study by the University of Lund. “This has to a large extent flown under the radar of the public.”

UN experts have likened the explosion of plastic pollution to a “toxic tidal wave” threatening human rights, health, and the environment. But oil and gas producers have no plans to slow production. Instead, they see plastics as a lifeline. Petrochemicals yield significantly higher profit margins than transport fuels — margins oil and gas producers are counting on to offset the anticipated fall in demand for fossil fuels on energy markets as renewables increase their share of the global energy mix

“The petrochemical industry needs plastic as a safe haven from carbon liabilities,” a 2021 study by the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) found. “Increasing plastic production offsets falling demand for its fossil fuels.”

“With petrochemical companies avoiding fossil fuel carbon liabilities by massively increasing plastic production, the amount of plastic waste generated is set to climb dramatically,” the study added. 

‘Best intentions’ meet obstruction

The majority of plastics that are produced end up in landfills in poorer countries. This practice is sometimes referred to as “waste colonialism.”

The UN-led talks aim to produce a legally binding treaty to defuse this plastic “time bomb”, and UNEP’s Andersen has described the negotiations as a “once-in-a-planet” opportunity.

The majority of the 150 nations that attended the treaty negotiations in Nairobi remain committed to crafting a legally binding agreement to combat the escalating plastics crisis. 

Over 100 countries support bans or phase-outs of the most harmful and unnecessary plastics, while 140 advocate for a legally binding treaty over a voluntary one, according to tallies by the World Wide Fund (WWF).

But leading fossil fuel and plastics producers, including Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the United States firmly oppose legally binding caps or phase-outs on plastic production. 

They maintain that the plastics crisis can be effectively addressed downstream through investments in recycling technology and waste management infrastructure. These arguments mirror the stance of the petrochemical industry dating back to the 1960s, when plastic production first exploded.

The INC is a consensus-based forum, meaning all countries must agree to the treaty’s language for it to be accepted. Environmental groups have accused fossil fuel interests of exploiting this consensus requirement to undermine the talks.

“The majority had the best intentions and worked to find commonalities among diverse global perspectives, but the entire process was continually delayed by a small number of member states prioritising plastic and profit before the planet,” said Erin Simon, head of plastic waste and business at WWF.

Fossil fuels lobbyists swarm Nairobi negotiations

An analysis led by the CIEL found that at least 143 fossil fuel and chemical lobbyists attended the negotiations in Nairobi, marking a 36% increase since the previous round held in Paris in June. Six lobbyists attended the talks as part of official member-state delegations. 

The surge in industry representation in Nairobi mirrors the record-breaking attendance of the fossil fuel industry at last year’s COP27 UN climate summit in Egypt, where over 600 lobbyists were present — a 26% year-on-year rise.

Lobbyists at the plastics treaty negotiations surpassed the combined delegations of the G7 nations and the 70 smallest UN member states present. They also outnumbered the 64 diplomats representing the Small Island States by more than two to one.

Small Island States, which are on the frontlines of both the climate and plastics crisis, spearheaded efforts throughout the week to centre the treaty on plastic production limits to protect human and environmental health, and human rights.

“However, the influence of a group of fossil fuel and plastic-producing countries overpowered these perspectives,” Break Free From Plastic, a non-profit observer group, said in a statement on Monday. 

“The bullies of the negotiations pushed their way through, despite the majority countries, with leadership from the African Bloc and other nations in the Global South, in support of an ambitious treaty,” said Rocha. “Plastic is burning our planet, destroying communities, and poisoning our bodies. “This treaty can’t wait.” 

Top 20 global producers of single-use plastics for the year 2021. The list remains effectively unchanged since 2019.

The outsize influence of fossil fuel interests on the treaty process has led to criticism from scientists and environmental groups of UNEP’s handling of the negotiations. They have called on the INC secretariat to implement stricter conflict-of-interest policies.

At a press conference on the opening day of negotiations, Andersen acknowledged the presence of industry at the negotiations, but added that both UNEP and the INC secretariat “listen to all sides, but do not have specific engagements with one sector or another”.

“A large slice of the industry, what they’re asking for is a level playing field. What they’re asking for is predictability. What they’re asking for is knowing what the market will be like, five years, 10 years out so that they can plan” said Andersen. 

“I think that’s fair because if you are in the business of innovating, you need to know where you’re going and what might be routes you may wish to take,” she added. 

The Global Partnership for Plastics Circularity (GPPC), a petrochemical industry group formed in response to the 2022 UN resolution calling for a binding treaty on plastic pollution, asserted in a statement that the recent round of negotiations had “made progress towards an effective and practical plastics agreement.”

However, the GPPC, whose membership includes ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, and Saudi Aramco, emphasized the need for increased support for recycling technologies and waste management.

“This can be best accomplished by creating demand signals that will unlock investments in product design innovations, collection and recycling infrastructure, and financing systems that incentivise circularity to keep used plastics out of landfills, incinerators and our environment,” the GPPC said. 

Un-recycled plastics have knock-on effects on the environment, emissions, biodiversity, and human health.

Yet decades of scientific research and media investigations tell a different story: Recycling and waste management, touted as the primary solutions to the plastics crisis by the industry and plastic-producing nations, are not working

As of 2018, only 9% of the 8.3 billion tons of plastic ever produced had been recycled, while 12% was incinerated and 79% ended up in landfills or the environment. In 2023, 43% of plastic produced globally is mismanaged and therefore “likely to end up in the Earth’s air, water, or soil”, according to the 2023 Plastics Overshoot report.

“This means 68,642,999 tons of additional plastic waste will end up in nature this year,” the study found. If current production and waste management trends continue, an estimated 12 billion tons of plastic waste will be in landfills or the natural environment by 2050.

The capacity to recycle plastic has also struggled to keep pace with the rapid growth of plastic production. The 2023 Plastic Waste Makers Index, an annual benchmark report that monitors the activities of businesses responsible for plastic production and pollution, characterized recycling as “at most, a marginal activity for the plastics industry.”

This problem is expected to worsen as the chemical composition of plastics becomes more complex, posing greater challenges for recycling and safe disposal.

“We cannot protect our climate, our biodiversity, or our health unless we reduce plastic production. This is inarguable, but more than halfway through the treaty negotiations, we are charging towards catastrophe,” said Graham Forbes, global plastics campaign lead at Greenpeace. 

“Plastic directly harms each of the 8.1 billion people on this fragile planet, but our leaders have effectively chosen to treat petrochemical companies as the only stakeholders worth listening to,” added Graham. 

Health loses if treaty fails 

“The Plastic Forecast combines research on atmospheric plastic dynamics with traditional weather forecasts to estimate the daily ‘plastic fall’ in an easy-to-understand weather report for Paris,” according to the Minderoo Foundation.

During June, while delegates were in Paris for the previous round of negotiations, the city used nearly 4,000 kilograms of plastic, according to the Minderoo Foundation Plastic Forecast. Converted to microplastic particles, that figure represents over four trillion individual plastic fragments. 

“Our atmosphere contains plastic particles that fall to the ground consistently – even more so when it rains,” the Minderoo Foundation study found. “The study confirms plastic particles in our atmosphere are constantly being deposited on the ground, even without rainfall. Plastic is falling all the time, all over the world.”

Plastics have been found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest point in the ocean, and atop the summit of Mount Everest, the Earth’s highest mountain, and have become a common feature of what remains of coral reefs

Microplastics, meanwhile, will outnumber fish in our oceans by 2050 and have founded island state-sized garbage patches in the ocean. Last week, Chinese scientists published new research showing the presence of microplastics in clouds above Eastern China. The researchers say that the presence of microplastics in clouds could have a number of implications for the weather. 

Plastics are in our blood, lungs, breast milk, food, water and air. Microplastics are altering the behaviour of cells in the internal organs of humans and birds through a new illness scientists call “plasticosis”

People now consume around five grams of microplastics a week simply by eating, drinking and breathing, yet their impacts on human, environmental and animal health are still largely unknown

Plastic threads rest on a coral reef off the coast of Wakatobi National Park, Indonesia.

“We are performing a population-scale human experiment on the health impacts for this generation and the next with respect to these massive chemical exposures,” CIEL’s Muffett told Health Policy Watch. “The array of health exposures is the aspect of the plastics crisis that is really just coming to light.”

Over 3,200 of the 13,000 chemicals so far identified in plastics are known to have at least one toxic effect on human and environmental health. Another 5,000 have not been adequately studied, leaving the world in the dark about their potential impacts on human and environmental health.

The economic costs of inaction on the chemical and plastic pollution crisis could be as high as 10% of global GDP, according to UNEP. 

The Endocrine Society estimated in a 2020 study that just four chemical families used in plastics cause over $400 billion in human health costs every year in the United States alone – a figure its authors called “a conservative estimate” due to the low number of chemicals studied. 

“Just for those few chemicals, the costs are tremendous,” Martin Wagner, an environmental toxicologist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and member of the Endocrine Society explained in an interview.

“If you extrapolate that to a global scale, just based on what we know about a few endocrine-disrupting chemicals in plastics, it makes total economic sense to do something about it.”

The Scientists’ Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty, meanwhile, found that Canada spends an estimated $684 billion in health costs every year due to its population’s exposure to bisphenol A, a chemical commonly contained in food packaging and drink cans.

Image Credits: Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash, QPhia.

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