The UN’s zero draft on plastics waste sharpens focus on plastic restrictions

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Senior Director and Principal Analyst

In September 2023, the UN released the “zero draft” of the international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment. This set of rules, agreed to last year, seeks to regulate the production, design, and disposal of plastics globally and threaten to put caps or taxes on the global production of plastics. The rules have whipped up fear in the chemicals industry, which could see its core product treated as a pollutant from the point of manufacturing.

The zero draft is an important step toward finalizing the rules, which the UN plans to put into force next year. Similar to the previously released “potential options for elements towards an international legally binding instrument,” the zero draft contains multiple options for each element as well as placeholders for text and options that have not yet been decided. It reflects an important refinement of the scope of the potential instrument. Here, we will compare the zero draft to our analysis of the “options for elements” document to try to understand the direction of the UN’s final instrument. Crucially, the question of national targets vs. the governing body remains unanswered: The UN has two basic approaches to any issue — it can mandate change (such as recycled content target) directly in the treaty or through a UN body or it can direct the member nations to draft their own individualized plans to address these challenges. National action plans will be (in general) much more permissive, especially those drafted by the biggest plastics producers and polluters. While the UN has limited ability to enforce either the national action plans or the direct rules, this difference in approach will shape the overall intensity of the regulations. The haggling over national plans has already been fierce, and it will continue to intensify as the UN moves closer to its deadline for implementation.

Key policy points from the zero draft are:

  • The zero draft retains plastic production restrictions: The most potentially impactful (and controversial) portion of the zero draft are restrictions on the primary production of plastics. Some of these are in line with existing national level policies (like restrictions of the production of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), but part one of the zero draft includes a potential limit on all production. This obligation, introduced in the options document, has been largely retained with few changes. While it’s still not likely to make it to the final instrument, the presence of this restriction in the zero draft is a strong signal that the UN wants to ramp down the production of plastics.
  • EPR emerges as a larger focus: Extended producer responsibility (EPR) is a scheme in which producers must support the sustainable management of their products at end of life. EPR was only mentioned once in the options document in a list of potential approaches but is far more pervasive as a proposed mechanism in the zero draft. Most notably, the proposed national action plans include EPR as an element — meaning it’s possible the UN will mandate that all countries adopt at least some principles of EPR going forward.
  • The fate of the recycling of chemicals is unclear: The options document had a line proposing a ban on all dangerous practices — including the recycling of chemicals. The zero draft softens the language (the word dangerous does not appear) and kicks the can on the recycling of chemicals by proposing to ban a list of undefined waste management practices. It’s too early for the chemicals industry to celebrate, but this reflects a meaningful walking back of the language on chemicals recycling.

The zero draft overall quite closely aligns to the options proposed earlier this year. Much is yet to be decided, so it’s hard to make concrete predictions, but most of the impactful provisions remain in place. The chemicals industry should brace for what looks to be a relatively firm set of provisions and restrictions in 2024.

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