Will the UN Plastics Treaty endorse the solutions needed?

A legally binding treaty on plastic pollution moved a step closer recently as the chair of the UN’s Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee was mandated to prepare a draft agreement before the next session in November. But these negotiations will drag on or even fail unless there is an acceptance of the real solutions necessary to deal with waste plastic. Production of plastic from oil and gas will fall and there will be less pollution, if end of life options such as chemical recycling and composting are endorsed.

Plastic plays a unique role in enabling higher living standards for the world’s increasing population. It is essential to providing healthcare, clothing and food distribution for urbanised communities.  There is an influential group of NGOs that does not acknowledge the importance of plastic.  They are focussing on a cut or cap in the production of new plastic to the exclusion of recycling and composting. The main positive alternative proposed is ‘a shift to refill- and reuse-based economies.’ And while this is a worthwhile aim, it only applies to certain packaging, and it will have limited impact. Lack of public acceptance is just one of the many barriers it faces. The NGOs and like-minded stakeholders are opposed by an alliance of nations including Saudi Arabia, Russia and China who want the freedom to decide their own policies.

Reductions in new plastic production would gain wider traction, if innovative end-of-life technologies to treat both single use and durable goods were to be endorsed in the treaty. The main contenders are composting and chemical recycling, which offer advantages over mechanical recycling. Biodegradable polymers made largely from renewable materials such as crops and agricultural wastes can be industrially composted, which provides a lower cost waste treatment option for developing nations. They also lower greenhouse gas emissions. Chemical recycling, in which mixed plastic waste is broken down into smaller building blocks and then repolymerised, has the advantage that it provides food and medical grade recyclate, which mechanical recycling largely does not.  Composting and chemical recycling are both inefficient in different ways and they are opposed by many stakeholders. However, they offer the best way forward, in situations when mechanical recycling is not feasible. 

In addition, one other key measure is needed. Each country, apart from the smallest or the least developed, must take responsibility for processing and recycling its own waste, on its own territory. The Basel Convention, which aims to stop the export of hazardous waste from industrialized to developing countries, has not been successful in limiting the trade in waste plastic. It will be argued that such a measure is a restriction on movement of a ‘valuable’ raw material for the recycling industry. But experience shows that this material is anything but valuable and that very little of it is actually recycled. It is more accurately described as a hazardous waste. Some countries have a producer responsibility charge or tax on virgin plastic content. This should be adopted more widely, and ringfenced to build the necessary infrastructure. There will be inevitable price rises, but that in itself will reduce consumption. 

A complex set of proposals, backed by a range of interested parties, has been put forward for inclusion in the treaty. They variously seek to cut absolute plastic production, increase return and reuse for packaging, take out additives, simplify design for recycling, increase mechanical recycling, rule out chemical recycling, deal with legacy issues and special cases such as plastic fishing gear dumped at sea. These competing priorities make it more difficult to gain agreement on plotting a course towards aligning plastic with a circular and net zero economy. 

We can’t turn just turn the clock back to using metals, glass, wood, paper, rubber, leather, cotton and wool, that answered our needs when there were considerably fewer people on the planet. Plastic is here to stay. But there needs to be more than a mere reliance on reuse and refill for packaging to solve the problem of plastic pollution. Acceptance of new solutions is needed: the current polarisation of opinion will only lead to stalemate, disappointment and delay.

Published: 7 June 23

Back to news list