During the week of November 13, 2023, the UN held the third meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3) to develop a legally binding instrument on plastic pollution. While this may seem like a boring meeting of bureaucrats, the implications for the future of the plastics industry are huge. The UN’s plan could be like the Paris Climate Agreement for plastics — or, more drastically for the industry, like the Montreal Protocol for plastics, targeting fast phase out, aggressive regulations on end of life, and financing to help make these changes. However, the UN has been mired in disagreements about procedure, policy, and the right set of approaches to take in this situation, making it difficult to predict the policy outcome. Can the UN overcome these issues and craft an impactful set of regulations?
INC-3 gave us more clarity on the future shape and direction of these binding treaties. The UN is now on a path to underachieve its goals, as oil-producing nations and chemicals industry lobbying have successfully added procedural hurdles that will likely limit the scope of the instrument. Our recent webinar reviewed the key actions and takeaways from INC-3 — key takeaways include:
- The formalization of the low ambition coalition: From the outset of the process, there has been a self-described “High Ambition Coalition” — a group of countries pushing for more expansive and stronger regulation. There was also an unofficial group of countries largely pushing back against the goals of this high ambition group. Those efforts have been somewhat uncoordinated, but at the start of the preliminary meetings, Saudi Arabia announced a formal alliance — the Global Coalition for Plastics Sustainability. Its goals are to ensure any regulation is focused on end of life, rather than on production of plastics. These coordinated efforts are likely to block the most ambitious proposed elements, most notably, the potential limits on primary plastics production.
- Procedure will hold back ambitious legislation: Procedural rules were still murky despite the late stage of negotiations, particularly whether the committee would proceed by a two-thirds majority vote or require consensus decision-making among all delegates. However, following this session, it seems that the consensus framework is largely going to carry the day, meaning that any antiplastic effort will have to pass a much higher barrier to become adopted as part of the overall instrument — further limiting the scope of action.
- Waste management will be most impacted: A need to focus on systems for managing plastics waste has emerged as the area of most significant agreement. While the lack of consensus may limit more drastic steps upstream, the emerging agreement is likely to promote extended producer responsibility schemes globally, requiring plastic packaging producers to support waste collection and recycling.
- As with climate, developing world infrastructure is a big need — and challenge: A big focus at INC-3 was the need to improve waste collection in developing nations by eliminating practices such as open burning and unmanaged landfills, while mitigating the impact on workers. The question of how the necessary investments will be funded remains contentious, but there’s increasing movement toward both regulation and a potential financing body to allow developed nations to improve waste management infrastructure.
The combination of organized resistance from the Global Coalition for Plastics Sustainability and tougher procedural rules means that we can now see the UN plastics treaty is likely to fall short of its ambitious goals. Significant outcomes, like a reduction in the volume of plastics, are not going to be possible, and much of the effort is voluntary, limiting impact. The UN’s treaty will still be meaningful, especially in the areas of waste collection and recycling where there’s the highest level of agreement, but it will fall short of what activists and high ambition governments have been pushing for.