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‘Shameless stalling tactics’: Talks on new global plastic treaty ‘held hostage’ by petrochemical industry

‘Shameless stalling tactics’: Talks on new global plastic treaty ‘held hostage’ by petrochemical industry
’The Giant Plastic Tap’, an art installation by Canadian artist Benjamin Von Wong at the UN headquarters in Nairobi in 2022. (Photo: UNEP / Benjamin Von Wong)

Negotiations on a global plastic treaty stalled in Kenya at the weekend, with some non-government groups describing the talks as a ‘massive failure’.

Negotiations to craft a legally binding treaty to control global plastic pollution and harmful plastic products ended on a subdued note in Kenya at the weekend, after progress was seemingly “held hostage” by the vested interests of the oil and plastics industries.

Senior United Nations officials tried to put a brave face on things and urged negotiators to keep pushing for a “bold, sharp and effective” treaty to curb plastic pollution. But several non-government groups monitoring the talks in Nairobi characterised the outcome as either a “stalemate” or a “massive failure”.

Local and international plastics lobby groups, on the other hand, have been much less vocal in commenting on the outcome of the latest session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee involving 161 United Nations member states (including the European Union) and more than 318 observer organisations.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Plastic, plastic everywhere – decades of talking moves closer to global action

Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, said she was “encouraged by the forward motion of the negotiations”, while outgoing negotiations chair Gustavo Velásquez said the 10 days of talking in Kenya marked a “significant step forward towards the achievement of our objective to develop an international legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution”. 

But, he remarked, “much remains to be done” in narrowing down differences on the shape of the new treaty.

‘Recipe for inertia and eventual disaster’

The Centre for International Environmental Law (Ciel) suggested that the “endless debate by those few who want to block progress at every turn is a recipe for inertia and eventual disaster”.

The centre said governments began with a concise “Zero Draft” of the treaty text and a clear mandate to agree on an active programme of work, but had left eight days later with a “Revised Zero Draft” that had ballooned to more than 100 pages.

“That treaty is still achievable in these talks, but only if negotiators acknowledge and confront the coordinated campaign by fossil fuel and petrochemical exporters to prevent real progress of any kind,” said Ciel president Carroll Muffett.

Muffett said a recent Ciel analysis showed that 143 fossil fuel and chemical industry lobbyists registered for the most recent negotiations.

“The results this week are no accident,” added David Azoulay, the centre’s director for environmental health.

“Progress on plastics will be impossible if member states do not confront and address the fundamental reality of industry influence in this process.” 

‘Catchy buzzwords, unenforceable promises’

Azoulay said negotiators also faced calls by the United States to replace concrete global commitments with “catchy buzzwords and unenforceable promises”.

There was now a lengthy list of unresolved issues that threatened to derail the next round of negotiations in Canada next year.

Summarising its position in a statement, the conservation group WWF said the latest talks had ended with no plan on how to move the negotiations forward, despite a majority of countries supporting a robust treaty based on global rules.

It suggested that the deadlock was caused by a week of delaying tactics from a handful of low-ambition countries calling for a loose voluntary agreement.

“Countries with deep petrochemical interests delayed progress throughout the week and blocked the final decision on how to advance work,” WWF stated, adding that a binding treaty was needed to “undo decades of indifference and ignorance” on the issue of plastic pollution. 

“More than 100 countries support global bans and phase-outs of the most harmful and avoidable plastics, and 140 countries want to establish global binding rules as opposed to a treaty based solely on voluntary actions, which some countries are pushing for.”

High-risk products

WWF is calling for the new treaty to focus on high-risk products, polymers and chemicals (those that cause the most harm or have the highest risk of becoming pollution) while expanding the treaty over time to incorporate all plastic products, applications and materials. 

It was opposed to recent attempts to refocus the treaty only on waste management and clean-ups, rather than reshaping the full life cycle of the plastics industry.

A separate civil society group under the umbrella of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives believes the final hours of the Nairobi talks were “held hostage” by a small group of oil-producing states “using shameless stalling tactics designed to ultimately weaken the treaty”.

“A minority of member states, particularly oil-producing nations in the newly formed informal ‘group of like-minded countries’ – including Iran, the Russian Federation and Saudi Arabia – undermined the previously agreed upon mandate for a plastics treaty, seeking to include low-ambition language and trying to run out the clock.” 

Plastics SA and the Chemical and Allied Industries Association (CAIA) respond

“The negotiations concluded late on Sunday evening with some key topics unresolved. One of the issues unresolved is around the intersessional work that needs to take place between INC3 and INC4. The intersessional work is key to laying the groundwork for more substantive talks at INC4, taking place in Canada in April 2024. INC 3 made progress towards an effective and practical plastics agreement by improving the Zero Draft document by adding additional elements needed to accomplish the agreement’s intent, which is ending leakage of plastics into the environment and plastic pollution, with specific reference to the marine environment.

“Key is an equitable and implementable agreement that becomes a catalyst for plastics circularity (with support for better product design, reusability, waste infrastructure, etc) where the role of circularity in minimising waste and addressing plastic pollution at a local level is recognised. In order to unlock waste, especially where infrastructure is lacking or has significant gaps, funding and supporting policies are needed, however, these remain a challenge.

“Plastics SA and CAIA sent a delegation to attend the negotiations in Nairobi.

“We do not have any comments on the suggestions made by the NGOs as we have not been able to access their written comments.” DM

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