February 22, 2024


Will the Global Plastics Treaty be effective?

All countries today deal with having to clean up after themselves. In that clean-up process, we learn just how much plastic is used. Plastic pollution, like global warming and climate change, has emerged as a global challenge that calls for countries to come together to address the problem. We already know how harmful plastics are to the environment. The time now is for collective action.

That’s exactly what’s happening now. 175 UN member nations have agreed to negotiate a global and legally binding treaty to tackle the entire life cycle of plastic. The Global Plastics Treaty is expected to be finalised by the year-end. However, given some countries’ hesitations about certain aspects of the negotiations, would the final treaty and its text be effective against the plastics menace?


In 2022, a team of researchers and scientists who studied the impact of the combination of synthetic chemicals and other novel entities concluded that plastics were “out of control”. Plastics are a unique nuisance due to their enduring presence, mobility, and pervasive environmental impact.

The challenge is multifaceted and complicates things since there’s an interaction between different substances and chemicals. This often results in unforeseen effects on ecological systems. Some estimates stated that plastic production and waste doubled from 2009 to 2019, and only 9% is recycled. Plastic pollution is expected to double by 2060. To put it simply, they’re bad for the environment. Countries realised something needed to be done.

In 2022, 175 member countries voted to establish the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) to agree on a legally binding instrument on plastic pollution by 2024. This isn’t the first-of-its-kind initiative at the UN. The 1987 Montreal Protocol regulated ozone-depleting chemical substances, and the 2001 Stockholm Convention regulated persistent organic pollutants.

Three rounds of negotiations have already taken place and laid the groundwork for more to come. One of the issues countries are stuck on is whether to adopt decisions by consensus exclusively or to consider a two-thirds majority vote. A consensus ensures everyone’s on the same page. However, some countries might bear a disproportionate burden.

At COP28, countries agreed to transition away from fossil fuels to achieve net zero goals by 2050. This will impact the fossil fuel sector since 99% of plastics are produced from fossil fuels. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), plastics could drive about half of oil demand growth.

Apart from governments and policymakers, the private sector also has a role. One study showed that just 20 companies were the source of more than half of single-use plastics. They’re cheap to make, but the price doesn’t account for the environmental impact. According to the WWF, the cost of plastic pollution, emissions, and clean-up could be $3.7 trillion from plastics produced in 2019 alone.

Individual countries have already implemented measures like banning single-use plastics. The results have been mixed. That’s one of the reasons why the treaty is significant. However, can a consensus account for the entire life cycle of plastic and deter its production and use?

VIEW: It’s tricky for some

The problem with plastics is that they pollute the environment but are somewhat necessary in our everyday lives. So, can they be useful while also being friendly to the environment? It’s why some people talk about a circular zero-carbon economy. Assuming we need them for several industries in the future, can they be redesigned to be sustainable? One way is to reduce their demand by banning single-use plastics. That helps make the problem small and more manageable.

Plastics can also be made from different sources with enough R&D. Some have argued that the treaty needs to think more locally and on the ground. There should be an emphasis on producer responsibility to motivate companies to think more carefully about their products. Focussing on individuals won’t help solve the problem since most everyday products have plastics in them.

The issue of undue burden on some countries needs to be emphasised. India, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the US, and Russia want the treaty to focus on downstream waste management. India is rather bullish on petrochemicals. India has the potential to become a petrochemical hub and earn money from exports. While the treaty focuses on waste management, it should actually take a lifecycle view spanning production, use, and after-use.

COUNTERVIEW: The treaty can work

Some of the positions taken by the countries mentioned above are untenable. They favour the fossil fuel industry. The treaty rightfully takes aim at capping petrochemical production, especially of polymers and toxic additives. The petrochemical industry in India is oligopolistic, with Reliance, Indian Petrochemicals Corporation Ltd, and Gas Authority of India Ltd as the dominant players. India’s ban on single-use plastics only targets about 2-3% of consumption.

The draft included a lifecycle approach covering all stages of the plastic value chain. Some countries have wrongly considered that the life cycle begins with the production of primary plastic polymers. The treaty’s proposal to cap production can stop plastic pollution at the source. One of the key aspects of the treaty is that it accounts for product design. Can there be better product design by reducing plastic and improving recycling?

The treaty also ensures that the polluters should pay. It has a provision for extended producers’ responsibility (EPR). Producers are often best placed to know how their products are made, used, and recycled. With effective policies and financial incentives, they can be brought into the process to reduce plastic pollution. This obviously means a transitionary period that will vary from country to country. It’s where the key principle of Agenda 2030, “Leaving No One Behind”, comes in.

Reference Links:

  • A global treaty to end plastic pollution is in sight – UNDP
  • This Earth Day Is About The ‘Planet Vs. Plastics’ And Organizers Are Pushing Petitions And Education – Forbes
  • Plastics Are Vital. Here Are 4 Steps To Stop Them From Trashing The Planet – Forbes
  • The Global Treaty on Plastics is stuck on these 4 points – GreenBiz
  • Global Plastics Treaty: India’s alignment with petro-chemical interests undermines crucial pact – Scroll
  • Inside the tangled negotiations for a global plastic treaty – The Interpreter
  • Reducing plastic pollution requires local remedies – Eco-Business

What is your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)

a) The Global Plastics Treaty won’t be effective.

b) The Global Plastics Treaty will be effective.


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