As plastics treaty talks open, a push to restrain virgin resins

As talks on a global plastics treaty open Nov. 28 in Uruguay, a key proposal on the table from about 50 countries and dozens of multinational firms is having the agreement “restrain” plastic production and consumption.

Whether the treaty ultimately does that remains to be seen, and the idea is only one of many on the table as the talks start in the seaside city of Punte Del Este.

But the 50 countries pushing for limits on virgin production — including nations with large plastics sectors like Germany and South Korea — have been making a very public push in the days leading up to the talks.

Known officially as the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution (HAC), the countries put out statements touting support from about 25 percent of U.N. member nations and from large blocs like the European Union, which joined the coalition on Nov. 24.

At a Nov. 27 event the day before negotiations opened, diplomats from the HAC member countries and an executive from an allied group of global consumer brands told delegates that the treaty should limit virgin resin and curtail “problematic” plastics.

“No. 1, a reduction of plastic production and use… focusing on virgin fossil fuel-based plastic,” said Jodie Roussell, a senior public affairs manager with food and beverage giant Nestlé SA, in outlining the priorities of her group, the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty.

The business coalition’s second priority, she said, is regulatory frameworks that support reuse and refill of packaging as well as recycling, while the third target for the treaty should be “legacy waste,” including macro and microplastic leakage into the environment.

Similarly, a diplomat from Peru, said it and other HAC members echo those calls and want the treaty to restrict plastics that are hard to recycle or more prone to wind up as pollution.

“It should include a proposal like the elimination of problematic plastics,” said Gustavo Meza Cuadra, head of delegation for Peru and a former minister of foreign affairs in the country. “We all agree we should eliminate single-use plastic [and] plastics that contain chemicals that are harmful to health.”

He also said the treaty should develop global sustainability standards for plastics and look at the “reduction of the production of virgin plastics.”

While those comments were aimed at setting an ambitious agenda, it’s not clear what provisions will ultimately emerge in the treaty.

The session, which is set to wrap up Dec. 2, is to write ground rules for the rest of the talks.

It’s the first of five similar negotiations conferences planned. A March resolution from the United Nations Environment Assembly that launched it said countries want to finish the treaty by the end of 2024, a fast timeline for a global agreement.

The delegates, including civil society groups as well as industry, will have to consider a range of issues, like financial help for poorer nations and how much flexibility the treaty should give countries in writing national action plans.

Plastics industry groups are there as well. The American Chemistry Council, which sent several staff as delegates, said countries should have flexibility in national plans, and it said the treaty should consider benefits of plastics and innovations in technology that could boost recycling, like chemical recycling, as well as set global standards

ACC said it would fight attempts to restrict plastics production.

“The global plastic agreement negotiations have begun with a multitude of voices bringing ideas to the table for consideration. Although it is too early to tell what ideas are in or out, we hope by the end of the week governments identify a north star to guide the plastics industry and other stakeholders,” Stewart Harris, ACC senior director for global plastics policy, said in a statement.

“As the plastics value chain is already making considerable investments across the globe to scale up a circular economy for plastics, a north star can accelerate progress and align those investments with anticipated outcomes of the agreement,” Harris said.

Environmental groups were outlining their own priorities, including urging an agreement with strong teeth that avoids the mistakes of the Paris Climate Agreement, which they said gives individual countries too much flexibility and results in weak, ineffective national action plans.

As well, they said the treaty must help the millions of so-called “waste pickers” around the world who try to make a living collecting plastics and other materials for recycling.

And they warned of what they saw as excessive industry influence in the negotiations.

“The reaction we are seeing from expert civil society representatives is a reflection of our broader concerns about industry influence over governments negotiating a new legally binding treaty to address the plastics pollution crisis,” said Jane Patton, campaign manager for plastics & petrochemicals with the Center for International Environmental Law, in a joint statement made with several groups.

“The perpetrators of pollution from plastics should not be allowed to manipulate these negotiations in their favor, so these processes must be specifically protected from fossil fuels and chemicals companies and their NGO front groups,” she said.

A business community source in Uruguay said governments seem split over “adamant” desires by NGOs to regulate certain additives in plastic.

“Governments appear divided as domestic regulations in many countries already regulate additives, while others lack the capacity to do so,” the source said, speaking on background.

The source pointed to a lot of interest in public-private partnerships.

“PPP agreements hold promise to improve circularity by unlocking private investment,” the source said. “There have been concerns about the scope of the final agreement and whether downstream users of plastics should be engaged in the INC negotiations.”

Nestlé’s Rousell said the business group of global consumer product brands, which launched in September, believes the treaty should look at different end markets and uses of plastics differently.

“The challenges of, for example, the packaged goods sector, the textile sector, fisheries, automotive or agriculture, have very different uses and applications of plastics and different polymers,” she said. “Each one of these sectors needs a specific approach.”

She said the business group “welcomes this flourishing of policy” around the world, with more places adopting extended producer responsibility laws, container deposits and other legislation aimed at boosting recycling.

She said the business coalition, which includes 80 companies, financial institutions and environmental groups, finds it “challenging” to adapt to many different EPR and regulatory systems around the world.

“So we welcome any international norms and standards in the treaty so we can best adapt,” Roussell said.