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Plastics treaty draft underway, but will the most impacted countries be included?

After powerful countries delayed negotiations, some question fair inclusion of low- and middle-income countries.

3 min read

Negotiators at last week’s global plastics treaty talks in Paris agreed to create an initial treaty draft, but full inclusion of the countries and people most impacted by plastic pollution remains uncertain.

The burdens of plastic pollution land heavily on low- and middle-income countries. High-income countries generated 87% of exported plastic waste between 1998 and 2016. Much of that exported plastic goes to developing countries including Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines. In these countries with limited waste management infrastructure, plastic clogs waterways, putting 218 million people at risk of devastating floods; it pollutes air with toxic fumes when burned, with waste burning causing an estimated 740,000 deaths per year; and it leaches toxic chemicals into the environment.

But it wasn’t the most impacted countries that took center stage at the negotiations. Instead, many countries that profit from fossil fuel and plastics production, including China, India, Saudi Arabia and Iran, delayed progress with procedural debates.

“It was quite evident that it was a power play,” Giulia Carlini, senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law, told Environmental Health News (EHN).

These countries questioned treaty voting rules, opposing a vote by a two-thirds majority of countries in the case that all efforts to reach consensus failed. After three days, a paragraph was added to a meeting report noting the lack of agreement — effectively meaning a vote will not be possible for major treaty decisions unless all countries later agree to one. The treaty is intended to be finalized in 2024.

With other treaties, “the threat of a vote is something that we’ve seen really moving situations that before were stuck in negotiations,” said Carlini. “If there's no possibility to vote, that will basically give veto power to a few states.”

The delays led to long nights that particularly impacted representatives of low- and middle-income countries, which often have fewer negotiators present, Arpita Bhagat, plastics policy officer at the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives Asia Pacific, told EHN. Accommodations near the UNESCO building where negotiations were held were expensive, so some representatives were burdened by travel time. “The meat of the negotiations were happening in the late hours,” Bhagat said.

Despite this road block, many participants were relieved when negotiations moved to substantive matters on Wednesday night. “Many countries expressed their concerns and their interest not only at the downstream, but also at the upstream,” Yuyun Ismawati, co-founder and senior advisor of the Indonesia-based Nexus3 Foundation, told EHN.

Plastics production is on track to triple by 2060, an unsafe level for human health and the environment, according to an international panel of scientists. Focusing only on managing plastic waste and not curbing production would fail to address plastics’ harmful lifecycle, as the treaty mandate outlines, Ismawati said.

“People are not able to see beyond plastic as a waste problem versus it being a climate problem caused by the same polluters,” said Bhagat. At the negotiations in Paris, she wore a badge that said “plastics are fossil fuels.”

Bhagat doubts that the initial treaty draft will reflect this, but she’s glad that the week ended with negotiators taking steps to reach a final global plastics treaty.

The next meeting to discuss the initial treaty draft will take place in Nairobi in November. Before then, it’s crucial for the United Nations Environment Program to organize “intersessional work” talks and training sessions that can hammer out technical details before the next meeting, said Bhagat.

Most countries agreed work is needed to determine which plastics and chemical additives are most harmful, which plastics are essential and which pathways are feasible for phasing out unnecessary plastics. Despite that, an agreement on intersessional work wasn’t reached during the week, so it’s unclear if any will take place.

If these information-building meetings do take place, Ismawati is concerned about language accessibility. Intersessional meetings are often held only in English, which can be a barrier to full access for many countries, she explained.

These discussions are most important for countries with low technical and scientific capacity to develop their knowledge on plastic pollution, said Bhagat. “There are a lot of nuances that countries want to get into in order to sufficiently advocate for their own needs for this transition to happen.”

About the author(s):

Tatum McConnell

McConnell is a freelance science reporter based in New York City.

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