It is no secret that we are in the depths of a global plastic pollution crisis. Yet greenwashing claims continue to mask the profit-driven agendas of the fossil fuel and plastics industries.

This is the issue the United Nations (UN) is attempting to face with its Global Plastics Treaty – an agreement by heads of state, environment ministers and other representatives from UN member states to end plastic pollution and forge an international legally binding agreement by the end of 2024.

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Announced in 2022, the resolution aims to address the full lifecycle of plastic, including its production, design and disposal. April 2024 will see the fourth edition of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-4) to be held in Ottawa, Canada.

Jacob Kean-Hammerson is an ocean campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency. As the Global Plastics Treaty currently remains at the negotiation stage in its deadline year, Packaging Gateway spoke to him to understand what the treaty must achieve for real environmental protection.

The EIA has worked extensively to advocate for the Global Plastics Treaty, using its 40-year experience of campaigning for change on environmental crime and abuse, in European legislation and now at a global level.

Its role surrounding the treaty dates back to the early stages before the INC was established, within UN’s Environment Assembly discussions led by expert groups.

As an organisation, it offers policy expertise, counsel and advocacy, and uses its experience in other multilateral environmental agreements to explore solutions for the plastics crisis.

What is needed from the Global Plastics Treaty?

Kean-Hammerson asserts that one of the biggest challenges facing the success of the treaty is finding an agreement on what the core aspects are.

One pillar is its legally binding status, which would require the eventual parties to implement the objectives. Without this status, uncertainty and loopholes would be rife.

“This is important because [the treaty] needs to be universal to create the necessary benefit. We [the EIA] think it is essential that there are freezes on overall plastic production, which then phase down over time.”

The EIA also believes that sustainable production and consumption levels have already been passed, so the treaty must address the full lifecycle of plastics.

According to Kean-Hammerson, this needs to include “the extraction of raw materials, certainly for plastic polymers. Virgin plastics must be addressed with urgency.”

The EIA advocates for banning problematic single-use packaging products and implementing global design rules and standards. This would allow businesses to adapt to the new normal and enable the creation of an environment for innovation in sustainable alternatives, Kean-Hammerson says.

The hurdles facing the Global Plastics Treaty

In 2023, Greenpeace organised an open letter to the UN calling on it to stop the fossil fuel industry from undermining the treaty to protect profits.

Kean-Hammerson confirms that oil and gas and fossil fuel giants look to petrochemical-derived products such as plastic as a major driver of growth.

“A solution to this is genuine scrutiny of lobbying and influence into the negotiations by fossil fuel industry players and proper conflict of interest policies on decision-making bodies and evidence-gathering bodies for an evidence-based treaty.”

Transparent data is also crucial. “Currently, these industries are not obligated to report on things like production levels or chemical additives. Without necessary fact-finding, there will be no effective policymaking.”

These issues need to be at the forefront of the minds of the treaty’s observers, negotiators and decision-makers.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however, as Kean-Hammerson points out that some countries are showing great ambition towards the terms of the Global Plastics Treaty.

“Countries in Africa and Asia-Pacific that are not major per capita consumers and are facing the brunt of the plastic crisis are showing incredible dedication. These countries are ambitious because the treaty is fundamental to the future and the health and safety of their environment.”

He points out that high-consuming countries in the global north need to show more ambition. The EIA hopes to see more from the UK in particular as a member of the High Ambition Coalition.  

How can the packaging industry engage with the Global Plastics Treaty?

In late 2023, a packaging industry coalition called the Natural Polymers Group and comprised of packaging companies across the US, Europe, and India, formed to call on the UN to define a global and clear definition for plastic and non-plastic substitutes and an expanded criteria for circularity.

Their collaboration offers a glimmer of hope for a future version of the industry in which packaging companies can work together to define clear rules on material usage and sustainability.

Kean-Hammerson is optimistic for the role that packaging companies can play once they “realise that global rules and regulations are a good driver for innovation, creating guardrails that drive ambition.”

He emphasises that packaging companies shouldn’t take the easy route of simple material substitution, but rather forge a path towards “genuine, sustainable alternatives.”

Recycling isn’t a fix-all

Recycling technologies are regularly promoted as saviours of the global plastics crisis. However, Kean-Hammerson remains unconvinced.

He highlights a report by the Center for Climate Integrity titled The Fraud of Plastic Recycling which finds that chemical and mechanical recycling solutions are pushed by the plastics industry despite their energy-intensive processes and economic unviability.

“We think of technology as a futuristic force. But in the packaging industry, for example, proper re-use infrastructure is a more viable solution to the consumption of plastics.”

Then comes waste management. The EIA has reported on ‘The Great UK Soft Plastics Scandal’, demonstrating that the majority of the nation’s soft plastics remain unrecycled or shipped off-shore to the global south, which Kean-Hammerson condemns as “waste colonialism”.

In his view, the UK must domesticate waste management infrastructure and reduce plastic production and consumption.

To support the eventual implementation of the Global Plastics Treaty, there must also be “genuine financial and technical assistance to developing countries to encourage compliance, as plastic is a trans-boundary issue.”

While the creation of global sectoral plastic reduction strategies is necessary, with dedicated prolonged work on packaging, Kean-Hammerson emphasises that “you can’t compartmentalise the plastics crisis.”

INC-4 approaches

As the follow-up to INC-3 which was held in Nairobi, Kenya, in late 2023, a lot is riding on INC-4.

Kean-Hammerson states that the EIA hopes to see “more genuine discussion on the details of the treaty, which we’ve lacked to date. There’s different views which have already been heard, so we need to move past this point and enter the decision-making stage”.

Currently, the revised zero draft provides a compendium of options and different approaches.

There also needs to be a plan for progress between INC-4 and INC-5, which is scheduled for 25 November to 1 December 2024 in Busan, South Korea and will be preceded by regional consultations.

As nations and industries hold their breath, whether out of fear or hope for the successful implementation of the Global Plastics Treaty, Kean-Hammerson reiterates that “it’s crucial that we demand more ambition, because we don’t have much time to solve the plastics crisis and the climate crisis, which are so interlinked with one another.”