Plastic treaty talks go beyond recycling to add public health debate

One thing made clear during last week's plastic treaty talks is that any agreement will likely go beyond recycling and marine plastic pollution to also take on health issues related to additives in plastics and the impact of polymer manufacturing on communities.

Environmental groups at the talks, held Nov. 28 to Dec. 2 in Uruguay, worked to elevate health topics, and industry groups like the International Council of Chemical Associations acknowledged concerns from countries about additives in plastics.

Some environmental advocates said the talks in Uruguay, the first of five sessions to work out treaty details over the next two years, made it clear that health issues will be part of the final agreement.

"There is little doubt — the plastics treaty will be a global health treaty," said Giulia Carlini, a senior attorney with the Center for International Environmental Law in Washington, and a treaty delegate. "Over the last week, we have heard dozens of interventions from delegations that they want the treaty not only to protect the environment, but also health from the impacts of plastics.

"Critically, this demonstrates that there is appetite to regulate the very materials and chemicals that plastics are made of," she said.

ICCA, in its statement, said additives are tested thoroughly but it promised more public information.

"Nations and stakeholders raised concerns about chemical additives in plastics," ICCA said. "Although many governments already rigorously test and regulate chemical additives for safety, the plastics and chemical industry is embarking on potential pathways to improve transparency of additives used in plastics."

The International Pollutants Elimination Network, which also sent participants to the talks, released a report ahead of the discussions outlining concerns for the 160-plus countries that sent delegations.

An IPEN member group from Uruguay said they want diplomats crafting the treaty to consider how plastics in the environment and manufacturing impact communities, particularly in developing countries.

"It is critical for delegates to understand that toxic chemicals pose threats to our health and the environment throughout the plastics lifecycle," said María Isabel Cárcamo, coordinator of the local nonprofit RAP-AL Uruguay. "Especially in Latin America, Africa and Asia, the treaty must protect communities from plastic dumping that threatens the human right to healthy environments."

The Break Free From Plastic coalition said it felt the Uruguay talks saw a shift in the movement away from only considering plastics as an ocean issue.

"We've seen a clear policy and narrative shift from one only of plastic leakage into the ocean to one of upstream issues, toxicity and health-including interventions," the group said.

The talks also saw the formation of a Just Transition Initiative for waste pickers, the people who try to earn a living collecting waste for recycling, to participate fully in the negotiations. It also calls for financial help for the 20 million people worldwide who collect materials in the informal economy.


Teeing up next round

Some participants noted that because the Uruguay round could not come to agreement on key areas, like how much flexibility countries should have in their national commitments, many topics have been pushed to the second negotiating session, planned for late May in Paris.

"Over this week, we have seen multiple interventions raising whether the future treaty will be based on national action plans, or global, mandatory targets," said Andrés Del Castillo, a CIEL senior attorney and delegate. "We know that this will be top of the agenda at INC-2 [the second intergovernmental negotiating committee meeting]."

The debate is over how much flexibility countries should have in their own national action plans or instead how much the treaty should mandate, played out in the public sessions in Uruguay.

Joan Marc Simon, the head of Zero Waste Europe and a delegate, said the talks showed a split between oil and plastics producing nations — including the United States, the Persian Gulf states, Japan and China — that seem to favor a focus on litter issues, and other blocs like the nations in the European Union and most of Africa and Latin America, which want a more detailed and ambitious treaty.

That second coalition includes a group of more than 50 nations in the High Ambition Coalition, which is calling for caps on virgin plastics production in the treaty, a point strongly opposed by the American Chemistry Council and plastics groups, who argue it would hurt efforts to limit climate change and meet the needs of a growing global population.

National delegations in Uruguay debated whether the treaty process should make decisions by consensus but Simon said that risks making the final agreement too weak, repeating problems in global treaties on climate.

"As a nice-sounding word to mean unanimity, consensus gives the power to any country in the world to stop any decision and, because of this, it is currently the main threat to this treaty," Simon said. "Veto powers in decision-making always lower the ambition to the lowest common denominator — look no further than the frustrating inaction of the past 20 years of climate negotiations, which happened under this principle.

"Effectively, this puts most of the world population's fate in the hands of a few, whose economic interests pass through continuing to make money by destroying the planet," he said.

The World Wildlife Fund, which sent its own delegation, said that while the "formal outcomes of the meeting appear quite limited," the talks showed that 145 nations want specific rules in the treaty.

WWF said those rules could include bans on "problematic" plastics and requirements for reuse of products.

"The next stage of negotiations will be more challenging, as countries must agree on the technical measures and rules," said Eirik Lindebjerg, WWF's global plastics policy lead. "Although in the minority, there are also some powerful opponents of global rules and standards, which risk potentially weakening obligations on countries to take action. The push for an ambitious global plastics treaty has only just begun."

Ahead of the next negotiating session, the United Nations Environment Program, which is one of the host organizations, said it will compile elements that could be in the plastics treaty.

In statements and previous Plastics News stories, industry groups have said they too support a legally binding global agreement, and said they saw support for unique national action plans in the talks.

The American Chemistry Council in Washington said countries at the Uruguay talks "voiced a resounding desire to develop a bold agreement that leverages country-specific action plans to accelerate circularity and eliminate plastic waste."

"ACC and America's plastic makers support the same approach and want to partner with governments to tackle each country's unique challenges," the group said in a statement.

ACC said national plans should include requirements for recycled content, national recycling standards, extended producer responsibility systems to help pay for more circular economies and support for both chemical and mechanical recycling.

"As plastic makers and others invest billions domestically and abroad to scale up a more circular economy, we want to maximize effectiveness by partnering with governments across the globe," said Joshua Baca, ACC's vice president of plastics, and a delegate to the talks. by Steven Toloken