Profiteers Obstruct UN Plastics Negotiations

Saul Elbein
Greenpeace activists call for action ahead of the second session of global negotiations on plastic pollution, hosted in Paris in May 2023. (Michaela Cabrera/Reuters)

Apr. 23, 2024

What to know about the pivotal UN plastics negotiations

As both plastics pollution and concerns over its impacts on the environment and the human body grow, world governments, environmental groups and the plastics industry are meeting in Ottawa, Canada, over the next two weeks in an effort to reach an agreement on reducing waste.

The meeting is the fourth in the United Nations’s Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee’s (INC) series of negotiations to cut plastics pollution — and if previous meetings are any indication, it will be split between two camps: Global South nations, public health and environmental campaigners on the one hand, and plastics producers and major oil producers on the other.

The groups have mutually incompatible goals. The campaigners want to see a gradual phaseout of many forms of single-use plastics, as well as a plan to gradually end the production of those forms of plastics most clearly linked to disruptions in the human body and pollution of the environment.

The plastics industry, meanwhile, is in Ottawa in large part to make sure that no such production limits get passed. The position the industry is taking is an updated version of the argument it has employed for decades: the problem with plastic is insufficient waste collection and recycling — and that production limits will in fact hurt the environment and lower-income communities.

The camps face a rapidly approaching, if artificial, deadline to bridge their divisions. The Ottawa talks are second-to-last in the series of U.N. Environment Program talks, which began in 2022. 

Before the final round of talks happen in December in Busan, South Korea, members need a firm draft of a plan to cut plastic waste — and all members must agree to adopt it. 

Increasing the urgency of the negotiations is the industry’s planned buildout in plastics manufacturing factories, which is set to increase production by anywhere from 25 percent to twice as much by midcentury. 

These production increases have come amid a steady drumbeat of new findings about the insidious impact of plastics production and recycling on both human health and the environment that has picked up pace since last year’s INC talks in Nairobi, Kenya.

For thousands of common plastics, scientists believe there may be no safe level of exposure. Those chemicals, which are found in consumer goods from bottled water to packaged meat and vegetable proteins and a staggering array of consumer packaging, break into micro- and nano-plastics without meaningfully degrading.

The tiny fragments have been linked to everything from a protracted global fall in sperm counts and female fertility to soaring health care costs to harms to wildlife, while plastics production has been found to contribute significantly to the heating of the planet. 

Reaching universal agreement on a way to reduce plastics waste will be an uphill battle. As The Hill reported, last year’s talks in Nairobi began with hope and fanfare from those — such as Kenya’s president and many U.S. Democrats — who hoped to see meaningful reductions in plastics production.

Instead, the meeting ended “in deadlock and confusion,” with no progress made on advancing beyond the draft that members had started with.

On one side, there were calls for a primary focus on production limits from a coalition of 60 “High-Ambition” countries. This group largely including countries in Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia, which are facing steep rises in both demand for plastics and plastics waste — as well as far more imported waste from high-income countries than was known before last year.

According to a 28-country study sponsored by antiplastics campaigner, production limits are broadly popular: Three-quarters of people worldwide favor a ban on single-use plastics.

But on the other side, a coalition of nations including Saudi Arabia, Iran and China joined with Global North trade groups such as the American Chemistry Council in the last round of talks in November to keep any calls for plastics production cuts out of the agreement. 

The plastics industry has presented itself as a strong advocate for reform and a key partner in the INC process. In 2022, the same year that the U.N. INC process began, the World Wildlife Fund joined with Nestlé, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Unilever — four of the leading sources of plastic waste — joined together to create the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty. 

In some ways, this group advocates for goals that overlap with those of the environmental movement: “a circular economy in which plastic never becomes waste or pollution, and the value of products and materials is retained in the economy."

It also argues that the INC process must deliver a treaty that is legally binding. “Voluntary agreements alone cannot reach the scale we need to urgently solve this crisis,” the heads of the group wrote in a Politico op-ed last week.

In addition to voluntary commitments, they wrote, “we need a legally-binding treaty underpinned by harmonized regulations that can tackle the entire lifecycle of plastic products.”

But this overlap collapses when it comes to the prospect of producing less plastic. The gold-standard for cutting plastics waste in a circular economy is “reuse,” in which durable, nontoxic plastics can be repurposed indefinitely in their existing form, without having to be ground up or chemically broken down — as they are in virtually all forms of recycling.

And even where recycling happens, it exposes workers and nearby communities to thousands of toxic chemicals. Campaigners from the Global South have long decried “waste colonialism,” the dynamic in which rich countries send their plastic waste abroad for disposal or recycling.

“We are in the midst of a vast experiment that none of us has signed up for, and the early results are terrifying,” representatives of the Global Alliance to End Incinerators wrote in a statement to The Hill challenging an Oxford Economics study that expressed concern about a potential cap on plastic production. “Has this study looked at the health costs that would result from business-as-usual plastic production?”

Critics also argue that there is a stark divide between the industry’s rhetorical posture and the specific policies it advocates. While big-picture statements from the industry advocate the importance of reuse and the insufficiency of recycling alone, most of its policy recommendations — including those offered in interviews with The Hill — focus on the importance of measures to promote recycling.

These include creating new markets for recycled plastics, designing new polymers and government polices that increase the relative value of recycled plastics to manufacturers.

The plastics industry argues its planned production increases are driven by consumer demand, and that they need not come with the health and environmental impacts at the center of growing concerns.

“We expect production will continue to increase over time as demand increases over time,” Stewart Harris of the International Council of Chemical Associations told The Hill last week. 

Harris argued that an agreement from the INC talks offers an opportunity to dramatically change the form of plastic production to make it far less damaging and far more sustainable.

But public health campaigners worry that this top-level support for a treaty is providing public relations cover for increases in plastic production and pollution, and researchers have been openly skeptical of industry involvement in the talks.

In October, a group of public health researchers warned in The Lancet that the “transformative” potential of the talks was being “wasted” as a result of industry involvement.

The authors compared the involvement of the petrochemical and plastics industry in the talks with attempts by the tobacco industry to participate in the international Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

They suggested that the U.N. Environmental Program follow the lead of the World Health Organization, which excluded the tobacco industry “given its demonstrable track record of undermining international tobacco control efforts.”

In the U.S. alone, 50 plants have been newly expanded or built since 2012 — at significant taxpayer expense, according to a report by the Environmental Integrity Project. 

About $9 billion in government subsidies went to 32 of those plants, for an average of more than a quarter billion dollars each — and 42 plants had violated their air pollution limits in the past three years, the report found.

Plastics industry spokespeople note there is no clean industrial distinction between factories that make single-use and multi-use polymers: plastics such as polyethylene can be used for both. But a disproportionate amount of this new capacity goes to the production of polymers that are used “almost-exclusively for single-use plastics” such as plastic bags and packaging, co-author Alexandra Shaykevich told The Hill.

The treaty “is an opportunity for the United States to set a higher bar for itself to meet. We want them to be doing — and what we’ve been encouraging them to do for years — is to set themselves a new bar [that serves as] an external pressure.” 

She added: “And that’s just not what we’re seeing happen.”

[Greenpeace activists call for action ahead of the second session of global negotiations on plastic pollution, hosted in Paris in May 2023. (Michaela Cabrera/Reuters)]