In March 2022, the world pledged to negotiate a treaty addressing the “full life cycle” of plastics. Twenty months later, countries still can’t agree on what that means.
A third round of talks over the global plastics treaty ended in frustration this weekend, as so-called “low-ambition” countries hindered progress by litigating the definition of basic terms like “plastics” and “life cycle.” Observers noted some signs of progress — like growing support for measures to address harmful chemicals that are commonly added to plastics. However, negotiators now have no formal work plan for the five months leading up to the next round of discussions and are significantly behind schedule, according to several advocacy groups that Grist spoke with.
Bjorn Beeler, general manager and international coordinator for the nonprofit International Pollutants Elimination Network, or IPEN, said this was a positive outcome: “More countries own more of the text,” he said, and discussions around different submissions helped further negotiators’ understanding of complex issues.
But perhaps the biggest sticking point was over the scope of the agreement — whether it should limit plastic production or focus mostly on cleaning up the oceans and preventing litter. Even though countries already agreed at the beginning of the treaty process to address plastics’ “full life cycle” — a term that traditionally refers to everything from production to disposal — oil-producing countries have repeatedly argued for a narrower interpretation of that mandate. This time, members of a loosely defined “group of like-minded countries” — which includes Bahrain, China, Cuba, Iran, and Saudi Arabia — said the plastics life cycle should only begin when a product is disposed of.
“It makes no logical sense,” Beeler said. To him, it looks like a desperate scramble from oil-producing countries to undo the mandate they already agreed to in March 2022, in response to proposals that are more ambitious than they may have expected. “I don’t think Saudi Arabia or Russia would have ever imagined 18 months ago that we’d actually be looking at controls on polymers.”
With just two more meetings and a little over a year left before a final draft of the treaty is due, some observers wondered whether more time will be needed. It’s unclear what kind of progress the so-called “high-ambition coalition” of countries will be able to make at future INC meetings without more cooperation from the oil-producing nations — especially on the critical issue of plastic production, which is expected to nearly triple by 2060, outpacing the capacity for waste collection services and recycling to keep up.
“Major plastic producers just don’t see a connection between plastic production and plastic pollution,” Beeler told Grist.
Beeler resisted some of the most pessimistic assessments of the INC meeting. Progress is going slower than many activists had hoped for, he said, but the plastics conversation in general has ramped up very fast and most countries still need time to develop their national positions.
To get resistant countries to engage at the next INC, he suggested that it might be helpful to steer the conversation toward reduced growth of the plastics sector. “It’s very hard to say you have to cap production,” Beeler said, especially to countries like Russia that are geopolitically isolated and dependent on fossil fuels. “We have to have a serious discussion about how we deescalate the rapid growth of plastic production.”
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