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The Global Plastics Treaty: A big moment for humanity… if we get it right

A woman sorts plastic bottles at Gioto Dumping site in Nakuru | Credit: James Wakibia

Revolution Plastics Institute

10 min read Partner content

With the Global Plastics Treaty starting to take shape, PoliticsHome reports back from Day 3 of the University of Portsmouth’s PlasticsFuture conference, which included a series of panel discussions, keynote speeches and short talks on how we can get the best out of the international response to deal with the plastic pollution crisis.

The process is now well underway to develop a legally binding agreement to end plastic pollution. With momentum picking up pace following the first and second sessions of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC), experts from countries across the world gathered at the University of Portsmouth during 20th-22nd June to dig into the process of taking action on a global scale.

Opening Day 3 of the PlasticsFuture Conference, Professor Steve Fletcher, Director of Revolution Plastics at the University of Portsmouth, explained that we are beginning to take a “huge step forward” following INC2, with a zero draft currently being developed of a Global Plastics Treaty ahead of the third session of the INC3 this November in Nairobi. It is currently envisaged that negotiations will come to a close by the end of 2024 following INC4 and INC5, with adoption to follow in 2025.

Given an estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic waste enter the world’s oceans (UNEP) and 1 million people die in developing countries from mismanaged plastic waste (Tearfund) every year, the fact that action is materialising on the world stage is a positive development. Once implemented, Fletcher argued that the Global Plastics Treaty would mark a “really important moment” in humanity’s attempt to deal with the issue, such is the scale of plastic’s relationship with modern consumption.

But how do we make sure the incoming Treaty reflects the changes required to deal with the scale of the problem we face? What follows is a multi-disciplinary snapshot of the insights from various panellists and experts at the conference, which aimed to answer that very question.

Panel Discussions

Chaired by Professor Fletcher, the first panel discussion of the day focused on how the upcoming Global Plastics Treaty can serve as a platform for system change, featuring Professor Lesley Henderson (University of Strathclyde), Belen Olmos-Giupponi (University of Portsmouth), John Chweya (Kenyan National Waste Pickers), Zoë Lenkiewicz (Specialist in Global Waste Management), Rachel Karasik (Nicholas Institute, Duke University) and Von Hernandez (Break Free From Plastic).

A key element of agreement from across the panel was that the Treaty must prompt a fundamental shift in the way we look at the problem of plastic pollution in order to deliver meaningful progress. Henderson concluded that “system change requires a sea change in cultural attitudes if it is to be successful.” Karasik suggested that this must apply to policy too, with a redefining of the policy landscape from the current context whereby plastic policies “exist in silos” to a new settlement which incorporates the issue with other areas such as health, justice and labour. With the upcoming Treaty in mind, Hernandez therefore insisted that “tinkering around the edges” with another waste management approach cannot be the solution to reducing pollution, but rather there needs to be a real commitment to “reduction and re-use”.

Another key theme was ensuring the Treaty empowers communities along the way as part of a “just transition”, from the Global South to indigenous populations who “have been on the frontline for many years”. Citing her experience working for NGOs, Lenkiewicz took the view that, as “experts” on the ground, waste pickers should be “at the heart of any discussions” given their intricate geographical and cultural knowledge. As a waste picker himself, Chweya emphasised the “spirit of acting locally” and how system change can be stimulated by filling the gaps in knowledge between policymakers, academia and  practitioners.

The panel agreed that there must be a solid legal framework behind the Treaty to really deliver on system change. Touching on the design of the Treaty to achieve this, Olmos-Giupponi mentioned the importance of striving for “a very specific” Treaty that allows for provisions around the “just transition” and “circular economy”, while aiming “for regional consensus about how we tackle plastic pollution” that “includes other concepts like re-use”.


The plastic pollution crisis – the scale of the problem

  • 6% (20% by 2050) of global oil production is dedicated to plastics, with packaging accounting for approximately a quarter of that (Source: Ellen Macarthur Foundation)
  • In 2012 carbon emissions from plastic production and after use were 390 million tonnes of CO2 (Source: Ellen Macarthur Foundation)
  • Only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled. Meanwhile, 12% has been incinerated and 79% ends up in landfill (Source: UN Environment)
  • The world produces more than 500 billion plastic bags per year (Source: plasticoceans.org)
  • 855 billion sachets are used every year (Source: A Plastic Planet)

A subsequent panel discussion that afternoon, chaired by the University of Surrey’s Professor Rosalind Malcolm, focused on the progress of the INC negotiations and how we can negotiate a plastics treaty fit for purpose. This featured James Wakibia (Photographer), Professor Tony Walker (Dalhousie University), Von Hernandez (Break Free From Plastic), Esrat Karim (AMAL Foundation) and Chris Dixon (Environmental Investigation Agency), who has been heavily involved with the Treaty process and provided an update on the current state of play following INC2 in Paris.

The main takeaway from the panellists was that a broader range of stakeholders need to be brought into the process. Wakibia talked on the need to ensure more of civil society is part of the discussion having gone to the INC1 negotiations as a journalist. Meanwhile, Walker expressed frustration at the lack of more meaningful involvement from The Scientists' Coalition as part of the negotiations and Hernandez at their closed nature, allowing countries with high interest in petrochemicals to delay proceedings.

Offering a perspective from Bangladesh, Karim referenced positive attitudes towards the Treaty, but acknowledged there is “a long way to go”. Karim similarly articulated the need for broadening participation as part of the process, particularly among the youth, and that the Treaty must focus on “enforcement”, providing real monitoring and evaluation on activity to reduce plastic pollution from multinationals and NGOs.


Short talks: Key insights from the speakers

Throughout the day there were a variety of short talks from international experts in academia, NGO’s and industry. This included:

  • Jill Bartolotta, Extension Educator from the Ohio Sea Grant College Program, who provided insights into various pilots that have been conducted around the Great Lakes about the relationship between behaviour change and single-use plastics.
  • Valérie Patreau, from Polytechnique Montréal who presented the effectiveness of various policy instruments available for moving away from single-use plastics.
  • Steph Hill, from the University of Leicester, who mapped the evolution of corporate discourse around efforts to develop a legally binding agreement on plastic pollution.
  • Professor Tony Walker from Dalhousie University, who provided an overview about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on policy responses to curb plastic pollution.
  • Dr James Doherty from Plastics-i, who gave a presentation on how marine plastic pollution can be reduced via the use of artificial intelligence and satellite imagery.
  • Lauren Weir, from the Environmental Investigation Agency, who highlighted the need to tackle the negative impacts of agriplastic products within the UK food supply chain.
  • Dr Noreen O’Meara from the University of Surrey who, using the examples of Kenya, Jamaica and Malawi, shared research findings on the large gulfs between policy, awareness and action when it comes to the need to reduce plastic waste.

Keynotes

At the conference, delegates had the opportunity to learn more from panellists John Chweya and Von Hernandez via two keynote speeches, exploring in more detail how we can implement a system change in a way which is just.

Chweya, who leads Kenyan National Waste Pickers, gave a passionate address to delegates about the critical action he and his colleagues have played to reduce plastic pollution at grassroots level. “Without waste pickers, most countries would be drowning from plastic by now”, Chweya expressed - a figure backed up by United Nations data, which suggests a remarkable 60% of all plastic recycled globally is collected by waste pickers.

Positively, Chweya highlighted that the work of waste pickers is starting to gain the attention of NGOs and policymakers on the world stage, with “more and more…being able to participate in the global policy making process that is shaping our future”. However, Chweya underlined that action on the ground has come at a cost with waste pickers often facing discrimination, social stigma and hazardous working conditions in order to generate an income: “A lot of this plastic waste has no value for recyclers. It’s lightweight, multi-layered and full of toxic chemicals that harm the health of our community…we are not doing this work because we love plastic waste, we are doing it to feed our families, send our kids to school and keep our environment clean.”

With INC negotiations ongoing, Chweya made the case for waste pickers being recognised in the upcoming Treaty as part of the “just transition”, with rights enshrined around access to secure employment, income, healthcare, social security and the infrastructure required to deal with the problem. “The just transition for waste pickers starts first and foremost by recognising a historical debt that the world has to offer our communities”, Chweya said. Most importantly, Chweya stressed that what happens at the global policy level must “trickle down to needs on the ground”, saying: “Just transition’ cannot remain a concept or a shiny word… for waste pickers it is a matter of life and death and it must be turned into actions at all levels all over the world.”

Hernandez spoke about the growth of Break Free From Plastic, which was launched in 2016 and has grown to represent more than 3,000 member organisations globally. Referring back to his childhood in the Philippines, Hernandez mapped out the transformation of Manilla Bay from its clean origins into a site which has become a “dumping ground for sewage” and “repository for plastic pollution”, resulting in nearby water suffering from contamination.

Crucially, Hernandez made the point that, given only 2% of plastic is effectively recycled, the upcoming Treaty needs to move away from a focus on waste management to “address in a more fundamental way how we approach our relationship with plastic.” Key to this, according to Hernandez, is to make “reuse systems a reality.” In doing so, he outlined successful initiatives we could learn from to help generate mindset changes, including San Carlos market in the Philippines, which has used banana leaves to package produce when making purchases there.

Moving the revolution forward

Reflecting on the success of the PlasticsFuture 2023 conference, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Portsmouth and Deputy Lead for the University's Revolution Plastics initiative, Dr Cressida Bowyer, said:  “There was huge energy and enthusiasm from all the delegates, who came to Portsmouth from all around the world. Whilst everyone was focused on the same aim, of finding a solution to plastic pollution, each person brought a wealth of different knowledge and experience. This meeting of minds on the South Coast of England is surely going to have a positive impact on policy decisions as the world wakes up to the threat that it faces from a growing plastics crisis. With some serious solutions discussed, we are delighted with the outcome of Plastic Futures 2023 and look forward to gathering again next year to keep the momentum going.”

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