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On September 4, 2023, the United Nations unveiled the Zero Draft of the Global Plastics Treaty. This text is designed to guide and support the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee at their upcoming meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, in November, the goal being to have a formal treaty in place by the end of 2024. The initial draft is just that, a draft. So far, it seems promising that vital elimination and reduction topics are now firmly on the agenda. However, the outline of interventions is not nearly specific enough to get us to the goal of ending plastic pollution.
More on the Forum Network: Ending Fossil Fuel Subsidies: the politics of saving the planet by Dr. Neil McCulloch, Director | Author, The Policy Practice | Ending Fossil Fuel Subsidies: the politics of saving the planet
To have any chance of averting catastrophic climate change, fossil fuel subsidies need to be eliminated. However, if fossil fuel subsidies are so harmful, why do they persist?
A new report by the Nordic Council of Ministers for the Environment and Climate developed by Systemiq warns that mismanaged plastics seeping into the environment could almost double by 2040 if globally coordinated policies are not implemented fast. The opportunity to set common global rules with a legally binding Treaty must not be missed. As the negotiations continue, we must use all available science to zoom in on the measures that will have the most impact. Waste reduction must play a bigger role because you can’t reverse a problem that is still growing in severity. While disposal and recycling is a prerequisite and needs to be properly financed by producers, the most effective solutions must prioritise a reduction in production and consumption.
A cap on virgin plastic production
The world must move away from fossil fuel extraction if we are to stay within the 1.5-degree Celsius limit. This must involve capping the use of fossil fuels for virgin plastic production. How can we begin to solve a problem that increases in magnitude every day? With populations continuing to grow and consumption rates rising, planetary boundaries will force us to stop if we don’t take action now. This must be done by removing subsidies from the oil industry and redirecting funds into the development of sustainable alternative materials and systems. Searious Business and Rotterdam University have been conducting research into alternative materials and plastics produced from non-fossil resources, such as CO2 emissions and green hydrogen. These innovative technologies will never gain ground while virgin plastic is allowed to proliferate unchecked.
Tax virgin plastics
To reduce the volumes of virgin plastic produced and to create a level playing field for alternative materials and packaging systems such as reuse, virgin fossil-based resources, and, notably, virgin plastics must be financially penalised. By applying levies, we can move towards true pricing where the full environmental and social impact of the material is accounted for. This will influence both consumer and industrial behaviour, which has tended to view plastic as cheap and disposable.
Limit polymer types and applications
The current plastic landscape involves many types of polymers and countless combinations thereof, making recycling complicated and difficult to control. Problematic plastics which cannot be easily recycled should be phased out quickly, and specific unnecessary applications where leakage is common should be considered for banning. There are also many chemicals of concern involved, which should be eliminated immediately. The use of recyclable mono-materials should be rewarded through globally coordinated Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes, as should the inclusion of recycled content.
Apply a maximum share of recycled plastics.
Plastic recycling in its current state is not effective enough. Collection is sporadic, separation techniques vary, and products are often not designed for the recycling system, if any exist, in their distribution region. Investment in recycling is lacking due to its unprofitability and lack of required uptake. As well as following global recycling design guidelines, producers must be mandated to include a maximum share of recycled material in their products. This market demand will stimulate investment in improved technology and encourage the transition away from virgin plastics. However, recycling is still a form of waste management, and we must focus on waste reduction and facilitate systemic change.
Encourage transition towards reusables
In line with the waste hierarchy, reusable packaging has the greatest potential to reduce packaging waste as a whole. There must be a global transition towards the use of reusable packaging as the primary form of product delivery. We call for strong targets of at least 30% by 2030 across all sectors. This must be supported by clear guidelines for the design of products, minimum system requirements and behavioural change factors needed to ensure successful implementation and economic viability. Searious Business conducted a study into the economics of reuse, which can be used to inform decision-makers on critical indicators for viable reuse systems. Reuse targets must also include performance parameters to optimise system capacity and economic incentives and the legal certainty needed to create economies of scale. Global and national EPR systems must incorporate reuse but also allocate specific funds to facilitate the set-up and use of pooled infrastructure, particularly in less developed, lower-income countries.
Exclusion of tendentious parties
Greater cooperation is needed between businesses involved in the packaging industry and packaging users as they will be key in the development and implementation of sustainable packaging and systems. However, business’s influence must be controlled more tightly. Although the private sector is technically ineligible for accreditation to attend, in practice, numerous representatives are present at the negotiations. There is a clear need and historical precedence for excluding incentivised parties during the negotiations for public-interest legislation, for example, the tobacco industry’s exclusion from (direct) involvement in anti-smoking policy development. To rectify this, stricter eligibility criteria for attendance should be developed, which strategically exclude any organisation or individual involved in extracting fossil fuel hydrocarbons.
The talks must not be distracted from dealing with plastic pollution through a panacea of waste management options. Cleaning up, collecting plastic waste, recycling it or using it for energy must be a last resort.
The circular economy for plastics cannot get going while the wheel keeps getting heavier. First, we must lighten the load.
To learn more, check out OECD's Global Plastics Outlook
Global plastics production has grown relentlessly in recent decades. Plastics help us preserve food, insulate constructions, use electronics and make vehicles more fuel-efficient, among other things. Yet, the sheer magnitude of plastics consumption in our societies results in a high production-related carbon footprint, high volumes of waste, persistent pollution and harm to wildlife and ecosystem.