On 26 May 2023, the news was abuzz with a one of a kind weather forecast which predicted that Paris would be showered with about 50 kilograms of microplastics starting the following Monday. Ironically, it was also the start of the second round of negotiations of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) to develop an international legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution, at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris from 29 May to 2 June 2023. The second round of negotiations also known as INC-2 was a much awaited one as the countries were expected to discuss the potential elements to be included in the Global Plastics Treaty. Over 1700 participants were in attendance for INC-2 among which 700 delegates were from 169 Member States, 900 members were from Civil Society Organisations (CSO) and the rest were industry representatives. Many developing and small island nations had high hopes for INC-2 and many voices echoed ‘Make Paris matter’,however, it did not live up to the expectations.
INC-1 took place in Punta Del Este, Uruguay where the rules of procedure were provisionally adopted and the Group of Friends of Waste Pickers was inaugurated. Following INC-1, stakeholders were required to submit written statements of their positions for the Global Plastics Treaty. Ahead of INC-2, the Secretariat had circulated an options paper consisting of various options for potential elements to be included in the Treaty. During INC-2, it was to be decided which of these options for elements would find their place in the treaty.
The INC Secretariat was widely criticised for its restriction of civil society participation in the negotiations. Although 5 members per organisation were allowed to apply for INC-2, only 1 floating badge per organisation was provided to attend the plenary. This heavily limited the number of civil society representatives in the decision making forum. On account of this, civil society organisations such as Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) and the Break Free From Plastic (BFFP) Movement staged an action outside UNESCO headquarters. With increasing pressure, the Secretariat subsequently relaxed the rules to allow access to more than 1 delegate per organisation.
Another major development which occupied a considerable amount of time during INC-2 was the disagreement among countries on the issue of voting under the rules of procedure which were provisionally adopted at INC-1. Particularly, Saudi Arabia, India, Russia, Brazil and China were highly insistent that all decisions shall be made only by way of consensus and did not agree with the majority members who argued that decisions need to be taken on the basis of ⅔ majority when consensus is not possible to achieve. As INC-2 was meant to make headway on the substantive elements of the treaty, many developing countries and small-island nations requested the Chair to reserve the issue of voting for later. Although this was a procedural matter, it was of key concern to the countries as consensus based decision making requires a resolution to be passed without any objection. Even if one country objects, the resolution can be blocked. Hence, this is effectively a veto power which could create an imbalance in the negotiations by prioritising the interests of a few over the majority.
Another trend that was noticeable was that the same countries which argued for consensus based decision making (and the US), also demanded for voluntary commitments over mandatory measures, and advocated for false solutions such as chemical recycling, waste to energy and plastic credits, while the rest of the countries (the majority including Mexico, Canada, New Zealand, African groups) advocated for binding measures, prioritising and eliminating polymers of concern and the most polluting forms of plastic. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain claimed that ‘plastics are necessary to achieve sustainable development goals’ and that plastic pollution is only a ‘waste management issue and that there is no problem with plastic as a material as it is fundamental for a country’s economic growth’. It is significant to note that these countries also refused to agree to a full implementation of Extended Producer Responsibility.However, many Southeast Asian, South American and African countries put forth a strong stand in terms of prioritising environmental and socio economic justice and holding polluters accountable while aiming to end plastic pollution.
Some of the narratives that were worrying were the indiscriminate use of the term ‘circular economy’ without any consensus on what the term encompasses. Countries with higher industry influence were suggesting that we switch to a circular economy without talking about reducing production, eliminating toxic additives, and strengthening reuse and refill mechanisms. With business as usual, transitioning to a circular economy is not feasible yet as recycling toxic plastics is far more dangerous than consuming virgin plastics and also we do not have sufficient recycling capacities to manage the amount of plastic waste. One of the false narratives in the context of waste trade propagated by the industry was that, if they were to reduce production of plastics, the waste pickers around the world who are dependent on the plastic supply chain will lose their livelihoods. Therefore, the economies of developing countries would take a hit as a result of plastic production reduction. However, this is the reason why CSOs are advocating for a ‘Just Transition’, to ensure that those whose livelihoods are dependent on the plastics value chain are not disproportionately affected as a result of ending plastic pollution.
Some rays of hope during INC-2 was the solidarity and strong messaging of some countries such as Rwanda, Ecuador, Mexico, Senegal, New Zealand, Canada, Philippines, Sri Lanka, and the European Union, which demanded for binding measures, global targets for reducing plastic production, applying the precautionary principle for microplastics, prohibiting greenwashing activities, harmonised labelling standards, etc. Despite a major chunk of time being occupied with debates on procedural matters, countries successfully made some progress in putting forth their desired core obligations, control measures and means of implementation to be included in the treaty and requested the Chair to prepare a zero draft ahead of INC-3. There were some matters in core obligations which could not be discussed sufficiently during INC-2 and therefore the INC Secretariat decided to hold intersessional meetings to discuss the scope and principles of the Global Plastics Treaty. While most of the discussions in INC-2 were focussed only on midstream and downstream issues of plastics, CSOs are advocating for the upstream aspects of the plastic pollution crisis to take the spotlight during INC-3 discussions.
Citizen consumer and civic Action Group participated in the negotiations on behalf Consumers International, the membership organisation consisting of over 200 consumer groups in over 100 countries. The Consumers International delegation had the opportunity to make a statement on behalf of consumers all over the world. To truly tackle the plastic pollution catastrophe, Consumers International called for redesigning products and packaging, moving to a circular economy based on reuse and zero waste systems, and eliminating the most polluting forms of plastics, such as single-use and multi-layered plastics. The statement highlighted that ‘it is unfair to place the burden solely on consumers to fix a broken system through recycling efforts alone’. The delegation demanded that the treaty should
- Safeguard consumers’ right to health from adverse effects of plastics throughout their lifecycle
- Ensure that consumers have easy and affordable access to environmentally sound alternatives, without bearing the full cost of sustainable choices.
- Recognise and uphold consumers' right to information, adhering to the principles of transparency and accountability.
INC-3 has been planned for Nairobi, Kenya in November 2023, INC-4 in Ottawa, Canada in April 2024 and INC-5 in South Korea at the end of 2024. Civil Society Organisations are hoping that the issue of restrictive participation observed in Paris would be carefully considered before the next INC and more marginal voices given a chance to be heard during the negotiations. If the decided timeline is expected to be followed, INC-3 will discuss the zero draft prepared by the Secretariat; however we can also expect multiple points of disagreements between the Global South and the Global North. Regardless of disagreements, and in the interest of the future of the planet, and the health of humans, animal and marine beings, this treaty needs to lay down a robust pathway towards the reduction of plastic production, eliminating toxic additives, strengthening environmentally sound waste management infrastructure and innovating affordable sustainable alternatives which can be circular.