What is the UN's Plastics Treaty?

6 minute read
21 June 2023

Following our recent piece on plastics and proposals for a nationwide Deposit Return Scheme we are taking a look at the United Nations (UN) plans for a historic Plastics Treaty.

In February 2022, the UN's Environment Assembly (the UNEP) adopted a resolution to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment which was supported by 175 countries. Moreover, in early June 2023, the second meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (the INC), took place in Paris, where countries discussed an options paper[1] that will be used as the basis for discussions at the meeting.

The UNEP, which is hosting the talks, released a blueprint for reducing plastic waste by 80% by 2040.[2] This report outlined three key areas of action: reuse, recycling and reorientation of plastic packaging to alternative materials.

The aim is to complete negotiations by the end of 2024 and create a global, legally binding plastics treaty. The options paper is the result of compiling previous discussions and written submissions from member states. It features possible obligations with options for both legally binding and voluntary measures that address the full life cycle of plastics.

By the session's close on Friday, countries agreed to prepare a "zero draft" text of what would become a legally binding plastics treaty and to work between negotiation sessions on key questions such as the scope and principles of the future treaty.

What potential objectives have been set for the Plastics Treaty?

The options paper proposes three possible "objectives":

  1. End plastic pollution; protect human health and the environment from its adverse effects throughout the life cycle of plastic.
  2. Protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of plastic pollution throughout the life cycle.
  3. Reduce the production, use and discharge of plastics across their life cycle, including through the promotion of a circular plastics economy with a view to ending plastic pollution by X year and protecting human health and the environment from its adverse effects.

Alongside considering these three objectives, the options paper details 12 potential "core obligations, control measures and voluntary approaches", each option considered in further detail and can be summarised as follows:

  1. phasing out and/or reducing the supply of, demand for and use of primary plastic polymers
  2. banning, phasing out and/or reducing the use of problematic and avoidable plastic products
  3. banning, phasing out and/or reducing the production, consumption and use of chemicals and polymers of concern
  4. reducing microplastics
  5. strengthening waste management
  6. fostering design for circularity
  7. encouraging reduce, reuse and repair of plastic products and packaging
  8. promoting the use of safe, sustainable alternatives and substitutes
  9. eliminating the release and emission of plastics to water, soil and air
  10. addressing existing plastic pollution
  11. facilitating a just transition, including an inclusive transition of the informal waste sector
  12. protecting human health from the adverse effects of plastic pollution

In advance of last week's meetings, many countries have said a goal of the treaty should be "circularity" – or keeping already-produced plastic items in circulation as long as possible. A 55-nation coalition called for a strong treaty including restrictions on certain hazardous chemicals as well as bans on problematic plastics products that are hard to recycle and often end up in nature.

Some environmental groups criticised the options paper for focusing on waste management, which they saw as a concession to the global plastics and petrochemicals industry. Environmental advocates have also called for the treaty to extend to providing protections for the "informal waste sector" to provide workers with safer and more sustainable livelihoods. This includes providing protections, healthcare and better working conditions for the estimated 20 million waste pickers globally.

What's next?

The "zero draft" text will be prepared, which is intended to reflect options from the wide-ranging positions of different countries by the start of the next round of talks to be held in Nairobi, Kenya, in November 2023.

We will be keeping an eye on the UNEP's discussions in the coming months and will provide updates in due course.

If you would like to speak to us about any sustainability issues presented in this article, including your company's management of waste or plastics, please do not hesitate to get in touch with either ben.sasson@gowlingwlg.com or environment partner ben.stansfield@gowlingwlg.com.


[1] Intergovernmental negotiating committee to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment Second session

[2] UN roadmap outlines solutions to cut global plastic pollution

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