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UN Kickstarts The First Committee To Reach A Plastic Treaty

The first part of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-1) on plastic pollution, organised by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), ran from November 28 to December 2, 2009, in Punta del Este, Uruguay. The conference itself was called to develop a legally binding instrument to tackle plastic pollution, and it comes after earlier this year the UN member states agreed to start planning a global plastic treaty.


The chosen instrument must address the entire life cycle of plastic, from extraction to consumption and disposal. But considering the scale of the crisis, the only way to reverse it is through urgent global cooperation.


And this sense of urgency has been particularly felt by many member states that decided to join INC-1: the committee hosted many representatives from Latin America, the European Union, other Western states, Africa, the Caribbean, and even the most vulnerable Pacific Small Island Developing States.


Apart from member states, intergovernmental organisations, United Nations specialised agencies, and other non-governmental organisations were also invited to the committee. Among them, of particular importance, were environmental movements such as Break Free From Plastic and the International Alliance of Waste Pickers, which for the first time had proper representation in the plastic negotiations. The alliance represents more than 20 million waste pickers worldwide, who in countries such as Brazil and South Africa collect up to 90% of all material recycled while receiving minimal compensation and often working in miserable conditions.


“Its been good this week to see such widespread recognition of the vital role we waste pickers play. Now countries need to design the treaty with our livelihoods and human rights in mind,” said Maddie Koena, the South African member of the delegation of the International Alliance of Waste Pickers.


Overview of the plastic pollution crisis


Ahead of INC-1, the UN published a report on the state of marine litter and plastic pollution, claiming that without concrete action, flows of plastic waste into marine environments are set to reach 29 million tonnes in 2040.


Plastic is single-handedly the most common and one of the most harmful types of litter. It presents a serious threat to human and animal well-being, and it has huge impacts on the marine environment, accounting for at least 85% of the global marine litter. According to one of the latest UN reports, plastics and marine litter are considered "threat multipliers," meaning that the damage they cause can be much worse when they act alongside other stressors, such as climate change. The report also highlighted the major challenges in plastic reduction, respectively, to be found in the low global recycling rates, which are currently less than 10%, and in waste management issues.


The outcome of the committee


According to Break Free from Plastic (BFFP), INC-1 concluded with some positive outcomes regarding the reduction in plastic production and the toxic substances associated with it, the protection of human health, and the need for a fair transition.


Von Hernandez, Global Coordinator for BFFP, said: “It was extremely gratifying to hear some of the world's worst plastic polluters, like Nestle and Unilever, call for a cap on virgin plastic production and the need for a global plastic treaty based on a mandatory policy." [..] "Now they should lead by example and change their business models to match their statements.”


But the enthusiasm for how well the negotiations went during INC-1 was not shared by everyone. This is partly due to the postponement or unsatisfactory outcome of some topics, such as the Rules of Procedure, which establish how member states can engage in negotiations, and the Multi-stakeholder Forum, which was held one day before the start of the committee and was even open to leading companies responsible for plastic pollution. As a result, representatives from environmental organisations expressed their concern over the lack of transparency in the whole process.


“The weeks first event, the Multi-Stakeholder Forum, is aimed at finding common ground between environmental justice groups, waste pickers, public health professionals, environmentalists, and the very companies that are the source of the problem: the petrochemical industry.

That is a recipe for failure. Instead, the treaty process should follow the precedent of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which excluded the tobacco industry from its negotiations. "The plastics and petrochemical industry are not part of the solution; it is the problem,” stated Neil Tangri, Science and Policy Director at the Global Alliance for Incineration Alternatives.


Despite the mixed opinions, INC-1 kicked off an important process toward the achievement of a global plastic treaty. The second meeting, INC-2, is going to be held in Paris in May 2023, and the final agreements should be reached by November 2024.



Photo credit: mali maeder: https://www.pexels.com/photo/assorted-plastic-bottles-802221/

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