A difficult road ahead for treaty to end plastic pollution

Negotiations have not been going smoothly, leaving the future of a binding treaty hanging in the balance, observes Li Jiacheng
<p>Plastic waste in a storm water channel that drains into Lake Nakuru, Kenya (Image: Alamy)</p>

Plastic waste in a storm water channel that drains into Lake Nakuru, Kenya (Image: Alamy)

In November 2023, delegates from more than 160 nations met in Nairobi, Kenya for the third of five rounds of negotiations to create, by December 2024, a treaty to end plastic pollution.

Together they discussed an early version of the treaty, known as the Zero Draft, which had been publicly released on 4 September. It covered crucial issues such as plastic production, product design and waste management. It also included procedural matters such as the scope of restrictions the treaty will cover, and voting rules.

I participated in the negotiations as an observer, and believe they have produced an unsatisfactory result. Much remains to be done in order to achieve an international, legally binding plastics treaty. These actions include reaching a global consensus on the definition of “plastic pollution”, which is far from being achieved due to countries’ differing interests in plastic, as well as an agreement on how voting should work on substantive issues within the negotiations.

Kenya’s ‘plastic ban’

Kenya, the host nation, had banned the making and use of polythene bags as early as 2017. As my plane touched down in Nairobi, an inflight announcement informed me that using disposable plastic bags in Kenya may result in fines. I suddenly recalled two such bags which I’d casually stuffed into my suitcase, and began to envisage my luggage being opened and inspected at customs. I was a little apprehensive.

Fortunately, my luggage wasn’t searched, and no penalty ensued. As my taxi drove through the streets, all manner of plastic bag membranes were mixed in with piles of rubbish by the side of the road. It seemed the ban had not been particularly effective.

November is rainy season in Kenya, and it was duly pouring on my morning run the following day. Locals walking to work on either side of the street held backpacks or handbags above their heads to shield themselves. Among all these temporary protections, not a single plastic bag could be seen – so, actually, perhaps the ban was having some effect after all.

I took shelter in a roadside police booth, where two on-duty officers proudly told me about the ban: “This law has been around for a few years now. We police help to enforce the law. We can take anyone caught producing, selling, or using disposable plastic bags to court, which can end with a fine or even imprisonment.”

It was still raining, but I hurriedly left the booth because I had a small disposable plastic bag in my pocket keeping my phone dry. I didn’t want any trouble.

people holding up yellow protest placards and banners
A rally in front of the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi on the eve of the global plastics treaty negotiations (Image: Li Jiacheng)

Debates and disposable cups

Kenya may be at the vanguard of policies to tackle plastic pollution, but outside the venue and in my experiences in Nairobi in the days prior to the negotiations, I had seen for myself the difficulties of managing plastic waste. This tension was also seen inside, where discussions were testy from the start.

The negotiations had just kicked off on the morning of 13 November, and delegates were already disagreeing on the representativeness of the Zero Draft.

In his speech, the Russian delegate questioned its legality: “This document does not reflect my country’s position. The current Zero Draft prejudges the ‘direction of negotiations’, and exceeds the mandate of the United Nations Environment Assembly Resolution [to end plastic pollution].”

As the representative of the world’s largest producer and consumer of plastic products, the Chinese delegate expressed his disagreement on a crucial definition: “Plastic doesn’t equate to pollution. Plastic pollution essentially relates to the abandonment and accumulation of discarded plastic products. Other countries have expressed similar views, but this is not reflected in the current Zero Draft.”

On the other hand, delegates from the High Ambition Coalition of countries committed to ending plastic pollution by 2040 all expressed support for adhering to the full lifecycle principle, and called for effective discussions based on the current text.

Actions speak louder than words: regardless of what delegates said on the floor, during breaks in negotiations, almost all used their own containers. Even with free paper cups provided at water dispensers, no more than 20 were used per day in the main venue, which had over 300 people in attendance.

two people refilling water bottles
Two delegates refill their water bottles at a meeting during the negotiations (Image: Li Jiacheng)

Petrochemical lobbyists

The following afternoon, the negotiations were divided into three contact groups, members of which were decided by the president of the negotiations, to discuss the Zero Draft. Oil-producing nations, represented by Saudi Arabia, promptly focused their “firepower” on the upstream of the plastic lifecycle.

In the groups, during the discussion of substantive issues, 14 oil-producing nations spoke against the proposal in the Zero Draft on virgin plastic polymers. The proposal offered three options for such polymers, with varying degrees of restriction, and the oil-producing nations objected on the grounds that it exceeded the mandate of the UN Environment Assembly Resolution. The Chinese delegate expressed a similar position in a different way: “One more option, Option 4, should be included, namely that primary plastic polymers should not be included in the [treaty].”

The sharp differences in attitude between delegations is easy to understand, as limiting production would affect the industrial interests of some countries.

According to statistics from the Center for International Environmental Law, a US-based organisation, over 143 lobbyists from the petrochemical industry attended the meeting, a 36% increase on the previous one in Paris. Not only concerned with the upstream, petrochemical lobbyists, including ExxonMobil, also wanted a piece of the downstream pie. They promoted the chemical recycling of waste plastic, which means obtaining oil, gas, carbon and other chemicals from plastic waste through a series of reactions. At one side event, company lobbyists gave away Rubik’s cubes and frisbees printed with depictions of chemical-recycling methods.

On the sidelines of the negotiations, researchers from the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives and the universities of Kentucky and Roskilde told me they believe that, given China’s waste incineration overcapacity, there is no need to build up a chemical recycling industry. The government’s crackdown on small, highly polluting, oil-producing chemical recycling projects will not structurally affect waste management, they noted. This is because large-scale chemical recycling projects require significant initial investment and long-term, stable supply of raw materials, so once established, they’d be difficult to shut down.

An incomplete picture of China’s experience

Twelve side events were held in Nairobi, covering topics such as marine plastics, funding mechanisms and waste management. At the tenth event, delegates from China, Japan, and other nations introduced their country’s experience in waste management.

Pui Yi Wong, an observer delegate from Malaysia, said at this event: “After China banned the import of ‘foreign rubbish’, Southeast Asian nations received more rubbish from the United States and other developed countries.” She then asked how China had cleaned up the plastic that had leaked into the environment as a result of imports before the ban, which had entered into force by the end of 2017. Regrettably, this question was not directly answered.

After the event, I ran into Pui Yi and another delegate from the Environmental Investigation Agency, a British NGO, who asked again about China’s ban on “foreign rubbish”. I wasn’t sure of the actual answer, and only knew that the policy might have been influenced by the documentary Plastic Kingdom by Wang Jiuliang, so I recommended they watch it.

large group seated in a conference
A packed room of attendees gather for the waste management side event on 17 November 2023 (Image: Li Jiacheng)

Closing session proves hard to close

The final day of negotiations was held on 19 November, six days after the first. Due to continued objections against the text submitted by the contact groups – even within the groups themselves ­– the meeting chair, Gustavo Meza-Cuadra, was forced to adjourn at the beginning of the closing session to allow the groups to continue their discussions.

The session did not resume until 6:10 pm, but was quickly adjourned again because a consensus on the treaty’s scope of restrictions could not be reached.

According to a spreadsheet describing the situation on the ground, jointly compiled by observer organisations, delegates from various countries or groups of countries had made over 2,171 statements on the Zero Draft by this point in the negotiations, of which 31% were in opposition.

At 11:01 pm, the chair hastily wrapped up a week of negotiations by quoting Nelson Mandela: “Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation.” He appeared relieved after uttering these words, his face beaming with a smile so rarely seen, perhaps because he no longer had to bear the brunt of endless disputes and questions thrown around by delegates from various countries.

By now, the Zero Draft that had served as the basis for the negotiations had grown ever longer, from 31 to 70 pages, as it came to include the views and opinions of all parties. Since the proposal to carry out interim work before the fourth session of negotiations – to be held in April in Ottawa, Canada – had not been adopted, and the Nairobi session had shelved procedural issues, the meeting in Ottawa may be even more challenging. If negotiations drag on with no real progress, the plastics treaty may eventually develop into a loose, multilateral framework, or even be “aborted” altogether.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of their organisations.