Next steps for the plastic pollution treaty: Vision and priorities for commitments and action | Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues
07 Apr 2022
Venue: The Geneva Graduate Institute (Auditorium A2) & Zoom
Organization: Forum on Trade, Environment & the SDGs, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva Environment Network
Following the landmark resolution to end plastic pollution at UNEA-5, this hybrid event focused on the overarching vision and specific goals the treaty should aim to achieve, along with the key features the treaty will need to translate the resolution’s ambition into concrete commitments and meaningful action to end plastic pollution. The event was co-hosted by the Forum on Trade, Environment and the SDGs (TESS), the Global Governance Centre and the Geneva Environment Network, in cooperation with the governments of Barbados, Ecuador, Switzerland and the United Kingdom within the framework of the Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues.
About this Event
At the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) in March 2022, 175 governments agreed on a landmark resolution to launch negotiations on a legally binding international instrument on plastic pollution to be concluded by the end of 2024. As governments and stakeholders embark on this task, this is a timely moment to refresh a focus on the overarching vision and specific goals the treaty should aim to achieve, along with the key features the treaty will need to translate the resolution’s ambition into concrete commitments and meaningful action to end plastic pollution.
The first session of this event draw together key actors to provide an update on next steps on the plastic pollution treaty and in related international fora that can complement and support the treaty process. Speakers in the second session reviewed a sample of voluntary initiatives, standards and regulatory measures, highlighting the specific challenges, opportunities and priorities that could be concretely addressed in the treaty. Finally, speakers shared views on the vision and goals that should drive the treaty talks, focusing on the outcomes and system change needed and how the treaty should be structured to achieve them.
This event was co-hosted by TESS, the Global Governance Centre at the Graduate Institute, and the Geneva Environment Network as part of the Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues, in cooperation with the governments of Barbados, Ecuador, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
The Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues
The world is facing a plastic crisis, the status quo is not an option. Plastic pollution is a serious issue of global concern which requires an urgent and international response involving all relevant actors at different levels. Many initiatives, projects and governance responses and options have been developed to tackle this major environmental problem, but we are still unable to cope with the amount of plastic we generate. In addition, there is a lack of coordination which can better lead to a more effective and efficient response.
Various actors in Geneva are engaged in rethinking the way we manufacture, use, trade and manage plastics. The Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues aim at outreaching and creating synergies among these actors, highlighting efforts made by intergovernmental organizations, governments, businesses, the scientific community, civil society and individuals in the hope of informing and creating synergies and coordinated actions. The dialogues highlight what the different stakeholders in Geneva and beyond have achieved at all levels, present the latest research and governance options.
Following the landmark resolution adopted at UNEA-5 to end plastic pollution and building on the outcomes of the first two series, the third series of dialogues will encourage increased engagement of the Geneva community with future negotiations on the matter. These include the meetings of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) from the second half of 2022 to 2024, as well as preparatory meetings within the ad-hoc open-ended working group during the first half of 2022. The series will also continue to foster stronger cooperation and coordinated actions ahead of other milestones in the environmental agenda, including the BRS COPs, SAICM ICCM5, the 2022 UN Ocean Conference, UNEA-6 and other processes in Geneva, such as at the WTO.
Theme 1: State of play in key international processes, next steps, and opportunities to galvanise cooperation
- Keynote remarks | Mr. Luis Vayas, Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ecuador
Leticia Carvalho, Head, Marine and Freshwater Branch, UN Environment Programme (UNEP)
- Rolph Payet, Executive Secretary, Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions
- Amb. Xiangchen Zhang, Deputy Director-General, WTO
- Isabelle Durant, Deputy Secretary-General, UNCTAD
- Moderator: H.E. Mr. José Valencia, Ambassador, Permanent Representative of Ecuador to the WTO
Theme 2: Voluntary initiatives, standards and regulatory measures: Challenges, opportunities & priorities
- John Duncan | Global Initiative Lead, No Plastics in Nature, WWF
- Feng Wang | Coordinator, Circularity and Waste, Consumption and Production Unit, UNEP
- Kitty Parker Brooks | Associate, The Consumer Goods Forum Plastic Waste Coalition of Action
- Jean-Marc Klopfenstein | Global Master Data Lead, Nestlé SA
- Robert Beideman | Chief Product Officer, GS1
- Tiza Mafira | PR3 Indonesia
- Kristin Hughes | Managing Director, Global Plastic Action Partnership, World Economic Forum
- Justin Wilkes | Executive Director, ECOS
- Daniel Ramos | Legal Officer, WTO
- Moderator: Carolyn Deere Birkbeck | Director, TESS
Theme 3: Ending plastic pollution: Visions & goals for a treaty that drives a systemic response
- H.E. Amb. Gustavo Meza-Cuadra Velásquez | Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Peru
- Winnie Lau | Senior Manager, Preventing Ocean Plastics, The Pew Charitable Trusts
- Erica Nunez | Program Officer, The Ocean Foundation
- Ben Dixon | Partner, SYSTEMIQ
- Joao Sousa | Senior Programme Officer of Marine Plastics, Global Marine and Polar Programme, IUCN – The World Conservation Union
- Carsten Wachholz | Senior Policy Manager, Ellen MacArthur Foundation
- Paolo Glerean | Chair, Recyclass
- David Azoulay | Managing Attorney, Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL)
- Moderator: Felix Wertli | Head of the Global Affairs Section, Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN)
- H.E. Amb. Chad Blackman, Permanent Representative of Barbados to the United Nations and other international organisations in Geneva
- H.E. Amb. José Valencia, Permanent Representative of Ecuador to the WTO
- Felix Wertli, Head of Global Affairs Section, Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN)
- H.E. Amb. Simon Manley, Permanent Representative of the UK to the United Nations and other international organisations in Geneva
In addition to the live Zoom and Facebook transmissions, the videos are available on this webpage.
Theme 1: State of play in key international processes, next steps, and opportunities to galvanise cooperation
Speakers offered concise updates on the state of play on the treaty and next steps, as well as on work in other international fora that can complement and support the treaty.
H.E. Luis Vayas (Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, Ecuador) opened the session with key insights on the elements for a successful process toward a legally binding agreement on plastic pollution:
- Adopt a collaborative multilateral approach and foster multi-stakeholder engagement.
Environmental protection and sustainability require political will, practical commitments, and concrete efforts from all nations. Thus, ending plastic pollution requires close cooperation among countries within the UN and with other international organizations. We also need to engage stakeholders, including the environmental community, academia, science institutions, trade experts, civil society, and the private sector.
- Enhance coordination among instruments and processes.
We need to harness the extraordinary energy and expertise held by many stakeholders. Collaboration among international organizations is essential if we are to address all aspects needed to tackle plastic pollution. This includes expertise on infrastructure planning, waste management, public health, innovation, circular business models, alternatives and substitutes, the role of the informal sector, policies on chemicals, financing strategies, ecosystem recovery, and policies on climate and fossil fuel, among others. We can also learn from successful experiences. Geneva is home to a rich expertise that can contribute to the process. This includes work ongoing under BRS, WHO, Minamata, WTO and UNCTAD.
- Integrate national and regional perspectives on the matter.
Addressing plastic pollution will require action across diverse domestic realities and challenges. Currently, all governments agreed to adopt a whole lifecycle approach. This will require collaboration between developing and developed countries and a recognition of the impacts of plastic pollution on developing countries, in particular LDCs and SIDS. We are facing a global problem; we need a collective and coordinated response.
H.E. Amb. José Valencia (Permanent Representative of Ecuador to the WTO) reminded the audience that plastic pollution is a multifaceted reality which impacts are seen all around the globe. It affects human beings and other species, as well as the natural environment in which we live. The new treaty will be a central pillar for articulating national, regional and global strategies to face the problem with determination and effectiveness. Ideally, the negotiation process will be dynamic and participatory, allowing for governments, multilateral organization, academia and civil society to contribute to a common goal.
Leticia Carvalho (Head, Marine and Freshwater Branch, UNEP) gave an overview of the UNEA resolution on plastic pollution and the next steps for its implementation. Her presentation highlighted key aspects to be discussed by the ad hoc open-ended working group (OEWG) on 30 May – 1 June 2022, which will prepare the work of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) to meet during the second half of 2022.
- The new instrument on plastic pollution will consider:
- Promotion of sustainable production and consumption of plastics, including product design, environmentally sound waste management, and through resource efficiency and circular economy approaches
- Technical and capacity means of implementation and adequate financial assistance, in order to leave no one behind
- Data, monitoring and reporting, means of assessing implementation and effectiveness, and compliance
- National Action Plans
- Scientific and socio-economic information and assessment
- Multi-stakeholder engagement, cooperation and action at all levels
- The INC will have to consider the following points:
- Obligations, measures, and voluntary approaches in supporting the achievements of the objectives of the instrument, with an all hands-on-deck approach
- Finance mechanism to support the implementation and deliver the desired outcomes, including the consideration of a dedicated multilateral fund
- National circumstances
- Policy relevant scientific and socio-economic information and assessment, as well as lessons learned and best practices
- The resolution also mandates UNEP to advance the work ongoing since 2014 under the Global Partnership on Marine Litter. UNEP envisions the partnership to be elevated to a partnership on plastics that can bring together all constituencies. Member States and other stakeholders are to continue and strengthen their voluntary activities to combat plastic pollution.
- UNEP wants to contribute to the highest level of outcomes. Its dreams lie with the elimination of unnecessary, avoidable and problematic plastic products and polymers, safe circularity, sustainable management of products across life cycle and reduction of impact and risk to environmental and human health along the value chain.
- Everybody who matters in the INC process should have a voice. The ownership of the outcomes should belong to all the actors involved in the process. The UNEA resolution requires to bring the informal sector, the industry, and civil society into the conversation. UNEP is committed to the inclusion of stakeholders across lifecycle and source-to-sea during the INC process. UNEP will strive to ensure that the voices of stakeholders are heard through, for example, the multistakeholder forum and collaborative action is facilitated through the multistakeholder action agenda.
Rolph Payet (Executive Secretary of the BRS Secretariat) shared the next steps in the fight against plastic pollution from the perspective of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions. The BRS Secretariat welcomes the UNEA resolution and is supporting global efforts to address plastic pollution through three main areas of work:
- Continue the work carried out under the Conventions, in particular the Basel Convention with the Plastic Waste Amendments. The Secretariat is currently working on an update of the technical guidelines for the identification and environmentally sound management of plastic wastes and for their disposal and has also launched a new project on the governance of chemicals in plastic. The BRS COP is June 2022 will mark an important milestone as Parties will consider the decisions taken at UNEA-5.2. Getting a mandate from the Parties at the COP will be essential to allow the conventions to engage in a much more profound manner with the new secretariat for the INC process.
- Leverage other areas of work on the issue of plastic pollution. This includes for example considering of the role of the regional centers in supporting implementation on the ground; furthering the work on the global monitoring program under the Stockholm convention; expanding the engagement with industry; initiating work on plastic additives and microplastics; looking at plastics with a lifecycle approach; as well as furthering the collaboration with WTO and other UN agencies.
- Engage in the INC process, through policy and instrument support, as well as capacity building and cooperation. The BRS Secretariat will be strategically aligned with the INC process so that it can support its work and deliver results within the tight deadline given by the Member States.
Xiangchen Zhang (Deputy Director-General, WTO) presented the ongoing discussions and initiatives on plastic pollution within the WTO and offered reflections on key elements for the continued success of the process.
- The connections between trade and environment are increasingly acknowledged and discussed among WTO Members, as illustrated the Informal dialogue on plastics pollution and environmentally sustainable plastics trade (IDP) which was launched in November 2020 thanks to the lead of a group of developing countries. In December 2021, an ambitious Ministerial Statement on Plastic Pollution was adopted. The convergence of this process and the UNEA decision marks a historic moment in the fight against plastic pollution.
- Information and notification constitute the basis for future work, as we still have an incomplete picture of the problem. We need more stakeholders to engage with the process to get more information from different countries and agencies.
- More outreach is also needed. Currently, about half of WTO members are part of the IDP. More countries need to be encouraged to get involved. The participation of governmental agencies responsible for the environment in the process also needs to be fostered.
- Lastly, cooperation with the INC process will be essential. While the UNEA resolution does not specifically mention trade, it does cover the full life cycle of plastics. Therefore, trade should play some role and the WTO needs to make its own contribution in order to reach a global solution. The WTO secretariat will support this process to the best of its abilities.
Isabelle Durant (Deputy Secretary-General, UNCTAD) discussed how trade-related measures can contribute to tackle plastic pollution and presented UNCTAD’s work in support of this endeavor. As a collaborative approach is essential this gloal problem, the multilateral trade rules need to be adapted in the future, which ensuring that national regulations are set in a fair, nondiscriminatory and transparent manner.
- Trade negotiations should contribute to incrementally phase out fossil fuel subsidies which lead to low prices for virgin plastics. This could create market space for natural materials and substitutes.
- Tariff lines which could be defined and expanded so countries can act via tariff and non-tariff measures, facilitating trade of substitute material and products and decentivizing trade of single-use plastics.
- However, switching to new material will not be enough. Countries also need to reduce overall plastic usage. This requires environmental sources liberalization, minimum regulatory harmonization at the environmental sources and at national level, and investment facilitation in solid waste management and recycling.
- A particular important aspect in the trade discussion to tackle plastic pollution has been the key role of developing countries and of emerging partnerships with industrialized ones in finding win-win solutions.
- UNCTAD is supporting negotiations toward a legally binding agreement by 2024 by actively supporting to the WTO IDP. UNCTAD also provides extensive analysis on material substitute and alternatives, trade policy tools, regulatory trends based on WTO notifications, impacts of marine litter and plastic pollution, and green finance for transition and transformation in high-carbon areas.
- UNCTAD further developed the first life-cycle trade database on plastics, which allows countries to measure flows and identify specific pollution mitigation challenges faced by their economies. It also provides policy recommendations at the Oceans Forum on trade-related aspects of SDG14 and supports projects in sub-Saharan African and South Asia through the Sustainable Manufacturing and Environmental Pollution (SMEP).
- Just like climate change, a lack of action on the plastic pollution front will only produce losers regarding of their development status. To have prosperity for all, we also need sustainability to all.
H.E. Amb. José Valencia (Permanent Representative of Ecuador to the WTO) thanked all speakers for their valuable insights.
Theme 2: Voluntary initiatives, standards and regulatory measures: Challenges, opportunities & priorities
The UNEA resolution calls for the launch of negotiations for a treaty that will include both binding and voluntary approaches, based on a comprehensive approach that addresses the full life cycle of plastic. Among the objectives noted in the resolution are to “promote sustainable production and consumption” including through attention to product design, environmentally sound waste management, resource efficiency and circular economy approaches. In addition to work on national action plans, the resolution calls on governments to find ways to “promote national and international cooperative measures to reduce plastic pollution in the marine environment, including existing plastic pollution.”
In light of this mandate, speakers in this session did:
- take stock of the landscape of industry-led supply chain efforts and partnerships, voluntary standards and labels, and domestic regulations and requirements to reduce plastic pollution.
- highlight gaps, opportunities, and challenges, including for firms operating in and trading across many countries, for consumers and for governments.
- offer concrete suggestions on how to strengthen cooperation on standards and measures through the international treaty as well as the role of the Basel Convention and complementary processes such as the Informal Dialogue on Plastic Pollution and Environmentally Sustainable Plastics Trade at the WTO, which aim to harness trade policies to support efforts to tackle the plastics crisis.
Carolyn Deere Birkbeck (Director, TESS) opened this second session, welcoming stakeholders from NGOs, UN institutions and other international organizations, and the private sector to share their contributions to the global fight against plastic pollution. The session aims to present current initiatives and how the treaty could help ramp up these efforts.
John Duncan (Global Initiative Lead, No Plastics in Nature, WWF) explained how the new treaty can fundamentally change the course of action against plastic pollution by institutionalizing some of the good existing initiatives.
- The number of initiatives and regulations tackling plastic pollution has skyrocketed over the past few years, without a significant effect on the upward curve of plastic pollution. The plethora of initiatives is incredibly complex for governments, businesses, and society to navigate. It is not the number of regulations or initiatives that will determine whether we end plastic pollution, but rather the quality of these efforts.
- A new treaty could solve four important challenges: (1) voluntary initiatives lack the scale to drive system change; (2) foundational reporting systems and capabilities are lacking; (3) current regulations are misaligned with the value chains and the drivers of the problem; and (4) targeted interventions are needed to accelerate change.
- The new agreement should provide a harmonized sets of definitions and standards, a common policy framework, global reporting metrics and methodologies, and establish international capacity building mechanisms to support implementation
- There are plenty of good existing examples and the goal of the treaty should be institutionalize these initiatives. We should avoid create a whole new bunch of initiatives, when one of the reasons we got here in the first place was because there were so many of them.
Feng Wang (Coordinator, Circularity and Waste, Consumption and Production Unit, UNEP) spoke to the fundamental need of transformation the way we produce and consume plastics. Sharing insights from UNEP’s work with the private sector, he highlighted the importance of enhancing dialogue with private actors in the context of the INC:
- Actions and collaboration from the private sector along the value chain is essential to tackle plastic pollution, including upstream (oil and gas industry, converters, FMCG, retailers to reduce problematic, avoidable and unnecessary plastic products, and chemicals concern), midstream (on reuse and sustainable consumption), and downstream (management of products’ end-of-life)
- Looking at voluntary actions from the private sector until now, we have seen that standards and eco-labels can improve packaging design, reduce the impacts of products, and increase consumers’ awareness. Additionally, extended producer responsibility (EPR) has been very instrumental to increase the take-back of waste plastic products, manage them in an environmentally sound manner, and provide finance.
- Voluntary actions from the industry need to work hand-in-hand with policies and regulations, so that the regulatory framework provide a level playing field to enhance uptake and implementation. For instance, legislation can support harmonized definitions, terminology and criteria of standards and labels, thus reducing the complexity and diversity of voluntary measures. Policy can also upscale voluntary actions at all levels, while providing enforcement, and cooperation among actors throughout the value chain.
- UNEP will organize multistakeholder dialogues and a forum in the context of the INC meetings, to have the voices of the private sector and other stakeholders for the instrument.
Kitty Parker Brooks (Associate, The Consumer Goods Forum Plastic Waste Coalition of Action) shared the work that the Plastic Waste Coalition of Action has been conducting to accelerate transition to a circular economy for plastics by developing harmonized rules at the global level on plastic packaging design.
- The Plastic Waste Coalition of Action was founded by the Consumer Goods Forum to accelerate the transition to the circular plastics economy outlined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy. Its members comprise 40 leading companies who are working together on EPR, chemical recycling and design of plastic packaging.
- The new plastics treaty is a wonderful opportunity for system change, as it will allow for harmonization, coordination and collaboration. In the meantime, voluntary action remains important to experiment and push forward on different ways of tackling plastic waste.
- In the recent years, there has been a proliferation of national and regional standards on product design, and specifically on plastic packaging. Companies that operate across a large global value chain are in need of global coherence and global harmonization across those design rules.
- The coalition developed the Golden Design Rules, a set of design principles which harmonize regional and national technical standards, focusing on eliminating unnecessary plastics, increasing recycling, and increasing the value of recycled plastics. These principles enable companies to prioritize and get moving on actions when it comes to updating their plastic packaging portfolio. Currently, 33 multinational companies have agreed to implement and report on these rules. Additionally, several national industry organizations are using these as a basis to develop national guidelines, allowing them to move faster in the process.
Jean-Marc Klopfenstein (Global Master Data Lead, Nestlé SA) provided insights into the data points that will need to be taken up and developed to support efficient action through a new plastics treaty. Nestlé is already leading the work in this area, notably on:
- Product identity: Nestlé is working with the industry on how to improve the quality and trust of identity systems. Verfied by GS1 is one example used in many markets, providing a large database of products. Moving forward, we need to reflect on how companies and governments can best leverage these existing “ID cards” for products.
- Digital twin: this will help us represent what the plastic challenge is from a data point of view. We need to better understand with properties need to be defined, so that we can measure the effects of all the standards and actions that would be taken through the treaty. Similarly to past discussions on the display of nutritional information on food products, we need to think on how to establish a digital twin for packaging, and more widely for environmental information.
- Data sharing: it is essential to consider how we can exchange all this data between all of the industry partners, and with consumers. In order to avoid inefficiency, this would have to be automated. Solutions and networks for exchanging information on plastics are already available, but could be used much more.
- Many components that will be essential to a new treaty are already there. We need to consider how we can leverage these at scale. This will require to adopt a common language, upscale existing tools, and bring together the rights experts when gaps are identified to develop simple, efficient and scalable solutions.
Robert Beideman’s (Chief Product Officer, GS1) intervention stressed that the foundations for making real change are there already and do not need to be reinvented. He presented data driven insights on how to successfully impact sustainable production and consumption:
- GS1 is a neutral, not-for-profit international organization developing and maintaining standards, including barcodes. Its work focuses on getting global identification right for products and entities, and creating standards for marking, tagging and sharing of data about those things.
- One significant opportunity lies with increasing the visibility across the entire lifecycle of the products and things that have plastic in them. We need to know more about the who, what, when and where of plastics globally. Without that, we cannot hope to make a successful impact, nor meaningfully measure progress against global goals.
- Global interpretability will be essential to address the global problem of plastics. The products need globally unique identification so that we can understand how the products travel across supply chains. We should use a common language, and established standards. There is no need to reinvent what is already there and globally used.
- We need to ensure everybody gets together so that the real needs can be translated into practical and interpretable action that industry can take. While many proprietary solutions exist and they can make meaningful short-term gains and improvements, they almost always result in lock-ins and duplicates across economies, which ultimately slows progress. We need to unlock capabilities that are globally available, royalty-free whenever possible, and easy to implement by all the stakeholders around the global table.
- A digital twin of the products that make up the global commerce will unlock massive opportunities for product design optimization, increase in environmentally sound waste management, resource efficiency optimization and the circular economy investments that we need.
Tiza Mafira (PR3 Indonesia) presented PR3’ work on establishing standards for reuse systems, instead of single-use packaging, a solution that has potential to address both the plastic pollution and climate crises.
- As long as plastics perpetuate fossil fuel production and conceived for single-use or downcycling, it really has no place in the future. he future of plastic products packaging is reuse. With effective reuse system, we would no longer rely on massive virgin material extraction, heavy industrial processing and disposal. Standardized reuse can even generate 80% less emissions than single-use plastics.
- Current reuse systems often feel clunky, inconvenient, and expensive. This is because most brands that have ventured into reuse have developed their own system and expect customers to return their unique packaging to them. However, these challenges can be overcome by developing the standards and infrastructure needed to support a global reuse system.
- Standards are essential to transform reuse systems from small, disconnected ventures to massive infrastructure-wide systems, and allow interoperability across multiple products and brands. PR3 has developed standards that are open-source and available online. The goal is to foster harmonization, reduce diversity and push for it to be mandatory.
- A second key element is infrastructure, such as collection points or repurposing of garbage collection trucks and shared washing facilities. Governments have a role to create an enabling environment for shared reuse ecosystems, while companies need to invest in these solutions. PR3 is working on a document to highlight private and public investments needed to build the reuse infrastructure grid.
- Reuse standards need to be globally accepted. The global plastic treaty is the perfect avenue for that to happen, by addressing the full life cycle of packaging and holding governments accountable. The treaty could provide Parties with the right to reject imports of packaging that it cannot recycle and that are not part of the global reuse systems. While this idea may seem radical, these are the kinds of rule that drive global trade.
Kristin Hughes (Managing Director, Global Plastic Action Partnership, World Economic Forum) shared the perspective of GPAP on the ongoing discussions around the treaty, focusing on the importance of supporting trade policies and fostering inclusivity.
- GPAP focuses on three main pillars: convening communities and engage in discussions; generating new insights and developing action roadmaps; and catalyzing strategic actions. The partnership strongly relies on science-based and evidence-based approaches, as well as interoperable approaches that allow for the integration of other tools.
- Inclusivity will be critical in addressing plastic pollution, considering the multiple interventions that need to be made in a coordinated manner. We should find ways to ensure we’re promoting equal opportunities for both women and men, but particularly those from marginalized and disproportionately affected communities. EPR schemes and standards should be inclusive and intentionally support informal sector workers. Beyond trade, let’s bring back the conversation on inclusivity and the role of women and informal sector to be supported and enhanced as part of these greater efforts
- Conversations around trade policies, such as the WTO IDP, are critical to support international negotiations processes on the treaty. We need to provide inputs on how can free trade agreement and regional cooperation forums be a vehicle to address cross-border barriers and promote circular plastics economies.
Justin Wilkes (Executive Director, ECOS) spoke to the important role that standards can play in supporting international environmental agreements and legislative initiatives by providing harmonized definitions and approaches.
- We need a much more inclusive approach in the standardization system. If standards are to play a positive role, we need to have environmental stakeholders to be present. We need the SDGs and MEAs to be driving the work of standardization and we need to make sure those standards are used in the right way.
- There are already many voluntary labels and claims that are made by companies regarding their plastic products. In the report “Too good to be true?”, ECOS investigated the claims made about 82 plastic products regarding reusability, recyclability, recycled content, compostability, and biodegradability. About half of the claims were found to be misleading. The report points out issues of relevance, clarity, reliability, and the lack of third-party verification.
- Moving forward, it is essential to (1) eliminate loose and stretchable definitions; (2) legislate explicitly on what market actors may or may not claim; (3) strengthen legislative enforcement and sanctions against greenwashing; and (4) make sustainable products the norm; this is particularly feasible from a regulatory perspective
- We also need to keep working on standards for reuse, following up on the solid basis laid by PR3. We are not going to recycle our way to sustainability, but we may be able to reuse and refill our way to sustainable resource use.
Daniel Ramos (Legal Officer, WTO) offered reflections on the opportunities that need to be harnessed with regards to the connection between trade and the plastic challenge, a link which is illustrated by the 1 trillion USD plastic trade globally. His insights build on the good work carried out by the IDP and the Ministerial statement which recognized these connections.
- Many discussions focus on plastic waste, and there are good reasons for that. But the data shows that most trade in plastics happens upstream. Moving upwards in the plastics value chain, both at IPD and UNEA, could help better identify opportunities.
- There is an opportunity for trade action to focus on aspects of the challenge that are particularly relevant to trade. According to the recently published OECD Global Plastics Outlook, 40% of the plastic waste generated are plastic packaging. Developing solutions for plastic packaging for trading goods and other relevant trade issues is a key step.
- There are many ongoing international, regional, national and industry-led efforts. Working together with these processes to avoid duplication is part of the DNA of the IDP. This is an innovation of the environmental initiatives at the WTO, to involve stakeholders that have a lot of valuable information. In that regard, it is essential to work more closely with the private sector, which will be at the forefront of implementation of the approaches that are decided.
- When the policy landscape changes, this will push for even more solutions. Trade needs to be ready to take advantage of these solutions and widespread them where they are needed the most.
Carolyn Deere Birkbeck (Director, TESS) thanked all panelists and highlighted a few key outcomes of the discussion including the importance of using the already existing initiatives and tools and coupling it with policy intervention and the ongoing negotiation process, the power of some very practical initiatives that are being pursued by the industry, and the role of reuse systems and substitutes in margin of the focus on recycling.
Theme 3: Ending plastic pollution: Visions & goals for a treaty that drives a systemic response
In this panel, leading stakeholders highlighted cutting-edge trends and share their views on the vision and specific goals needed for a treaty that can drive a systemic response to pollution across the full life cycle of plastic. The discussion covered topics ranging from sustainable production and consumption to ensuring safe circularity, reducing virgin plastic production, and addressing legacy plastic pollution.
Speakers shared views on:
- What is your vision on an ideal system that would end plastic pollution?
- What are the key goals, targets and outcomes that should focus and galvanise action?
- What key approaches and features will the new international treaty on plastic pollution need in order to achieve these visions and goals?
Felix Wertli (Head of the Global Affairs Section, Swiss Federal Office for the Environment) reminded the audience of the successful ambitious outcome of UNEA, underlining that the hard work starts now to deliver on this result. Key questions to be addressed in this session include what are the key goals, targets and outcomes that we need to achieve, and what are the key tools that will bring us there.
H.E. Amb. Gustavo Meza-Cuadra Velásquez (Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Peru) expressed Peru’s commitment to promote awareness on plastic pollution as a global environmental concern, highlighting efforts taken at the national level and in global for a, notably through the draft resolution presented at UNEA with Rwanda. He further shared Peru’s vision for the future international legally binding instrument and announced Peru’s candidacy to become a member and chair of the Bureau of the INC.
- The new instrument should be as ambitious as possible, and should be based on a comprehensive approach to prevent and reduce plastic pollution in the environment, by promoting a circular economy and addressing the full lifecycle of plastics, from production, consumption, and design to environmentally sound waste management, prevention, and treatment.
- It is also important to ensure a system that involves a responsible and sustainable production of plastics, as well as one that raises awareness among the general public on responsible consumption, keeping in mind the environmental, social and economic impacts of its use.
- Plastic pollution disproportionately impacts developing countries and socio-economically challenged communities that work in informal and cooperative settings. That’s why we need a strong treaty with ambitious objectives, but equally ambitious means of implementation, that considers the needs of developing countries.
- The international community should listen to different perspectives in order to achieve a truly ambitious treaty. All relevant stakeholders should be heard and need to join forces to find concrete measures to reduce the production of virgin plastic, encourage recycling, and ensure safe and proper waste disposal of existing plastics, especially in the marine environment.
- Shared objectives of the future instrument, as well as the development of national action plans should be heavily informed by science. It is crucial that science and its new developments support us and guide us in this process.
- The new treaty should have a human rights approach as well in order to truly achieve its goals. We need to understand that plastic pollution has a considerable impact on a broad range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, science, housing, and a healthy environment.
- In that sense, it is also important to have a negotiation process that is open, inclusive, and transparent, which allows the participation of civil society, the private sector, academia, governments, consumers, and the scientific community.
Winnie Lau (Senior Manager, Preventing Ocean Plastics, The Pew Charitable Trusts) pointed out the threat under which ocean health is and welcomed the new treaty, which could set ambitious goals of reaching near zero plastic pollution entering the ocean by 2040 and reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions from plastics through a system change approach. She presented key recommendations from Breaking the Plastic Wave Report (2020) on how to reduce plastic inflow to the environment:
- Reducing plastic production and consumption, starting from eliminating all avoidable plastic use, establishing re-use and refill systems and substituting plastic with other materials when beneficial and feasible.
- Designing all products and packaging to be re-used, recycled or composted in environmentally friendly systems. Such systems should be practical to scale and find alternatives to plastic items that are not recyclable.
- Improving and creating new waste management services, focusing on increasing collection, re-use and recycling ways, providing long-term funding for circular systems and securing the health and the economic conditions of informal/formal waste collectors.
- Restricting and regulating transboundary flows of plastic waste, limiting it to those countries with demonstrated capacity to recycle both domestic and imported plastic-generated waste.
- Tackling microplastic pollution by using alternative materials and developing improved standards and capture technologies, setting mandatory supply-chain standards to prevent plastic generation and forbidding microplastics ingredients in products that may be released to the environment.
- Eliminating maritime sources and sector-specific sectors of plastic pollution through policy interventions and incentives, increase collection and re-use at the end of products life. Essential support can come from the strengthening of international policy frameworks through UNEA, the Basel Convention, the International Maritime Organization, FAO and WTO.
Erica Nunez (Program Officer, The Ocean Foundation) emphasized that while plastic pollution is a multifaceted issue that no single solution can fix, the mandate provided at UNEA-5.2 for the new treaty provides the foundations to tackle it. Besides undertaking a lifecycle approach to plastic and microplastics, and adopting an inclusive framework by recognizing the contribution of workers in informal sectors, the mandate contains provisions promoting the sustainable production and consumption of plastics, including product design.
- Currently, 90% of plastics is not recyclable. Plastics are too complex and too customized to fit a circular economy. Poor product design, the inclusion of additives and problematic materials, the lack of transparency in labelling and excessive customization contribute to poor recyclability of all plastic products.
- Sustainable plastics should limit the creation of waste, toxins and pollution from their production through use to end of life. They should have minimal impact on humans and environment, climate and promote a more circular economy.
- The plastic treaty should drastically intervene in the production of plastic by simplifying it and making it healthy for both humans and the environment. Without substantial measures to address sustainable plastic production and design, circular economy, recycling, and other policy interventions will not be effective.
Ben Dixon (Partner, SYSTEMIQ) gave an overview of some key priorities to keep in mind, noting that the negotiation process toward a legally binding instrument must not distract us from the urgency for action today. According to SISTEMIQ’s modelling and analytical research, key steps forward include:
- We must set up an ambitious global goal where national and regional plastic pollution action plans are coordinated. This entails national targets being aligned with national goals, and national and regional plans being tailored to local contexts.
- Harmonized monitoring and reporting mechanisms must be promptly set up and supported by continued learning and research efforts to adjust and gradually fill existing knowledge gaps.
- The most important aspect are transition finance and policies to close the financing gaps in the plastic pollution management system. Many solutions already exist for a circular and zero-pollution plastic system, but these lack funding. Money is especially needed to sustainably operate plastic management infrastructure. Policy instruments as reuse mandates, EPR, recycle content mandates have the potential to close the gap and to make circular solutions commercially successful into local economic benefits.
João Sousa (Senior Programme Officer of Marine Plastics, Global Marine and Polar Programme, IUCN) shared perspectives on a few key elements that are essential to ensure the success of the new treaty, highlighting the specificities of plastics and the need for flexibility.
- Plastic is a family of products, leaving us to deal with a family of problems. To solve them, a new system must be created. The new plastic treaty must be carefully designed into specific aspects that will prevent failing its mandate.
- Such holistic system must treat different types of plastics differently, from their design, throughout their lifespan until their end-of-life options. Planning against externalities of plastics is the first way to prevent waste. This system should allow countries that do not have the capacity to recycle plastics from prevent plastics from coming in, implementing the simple rule for suppliers: bring it, bring out.
- The new plastic treaty must adopt a flexible approach to encompass geographic, economic, environmental and cultural sensitivities, but without being lax. It must promote R&D, starting from innovations in the entire value chain from product design to end of life solution. It must create partnership and set standards and definitions of what recycling means.
- Lastly, the treaty must adopt an all-inclusive approach and waste pickers should be considered as a central part of this.
Carsten Wachholz (Senior Policy Manager, Ellen MacArthur Foundation) shared insights from the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, a partnership under which more than a thousand organization have agreed on a common vision and targets for a circular economy on plastics. This vision can be broadened to inform the UN treaty discussion on principles, policy elements to prioritize and steps to follow. The vision is based on the three main principles eliminating all unnecessary plastics, innovating plastic into reusable, recyclable and compostable, and circulate for plastics to be kept in the economy and out of the environment.
- Preventing pollution and increasing circular economy must go hand-in-hand. For this, eliminating unnecessary plastic products and redesigning through other materials is essential. Among the three principles, elimination is probably the most challenging one, as circulation can only absorb part of existing plastic. Innovation is key as we currently do not have the capacities for this plastic to not spill into the environment. Elimination can and is already happening through virgin plastic reduction standard settings.
- Innovation must be supported by a carefully designed and adequately funded R&D agenda. All plastic material injected in the market must be reusable, recyclable, and compostable while remaining residual waste must be managed in an environmentally sound manner and possibly regenerated into other products. The reduction of plastic production and consequently of fossil fuel use, should apply not only to plastics but also for potential substitution materials. Circulation then needs setting up of stable recurring funding of collecting and recycling through EPR schemes for the industry.
- The plastic treaty should focus on the following policy elements: mandatory design requirements to favor elimination; setting up the required system and infrastructure. These will not be successful without developing regulatory and economic incentives. Importantly, the treaty must be respectful of the health, safety and rights of people within the plastic value chain.
Paolo Glerean (Chair, Recyclass) brought the perspective of recycling practitioners to the table, in particular with regards to how to increase plastic recycling and the important role of EPR schemes in that process.
- The value we attach to waste needs to change. To increase the quality of what can be recycled, we need a good quality of waste. This is the basic principle of a circular economy. For this to be improved, legal requirements, economic incentives and EPR are equally important for companies engaged in design for recycling to produce better products, which will turn into good quality waste.
- EPR systems has been proven to tackle the bulk of the plastic pollution issue at least in Europe. Considering the different business cultures around the world, it is likely that Europe will soon shift to EPR models based on circularity, whereas in other parts of the world existing EPR schemes can be reproduced and contribute to the foundation of plastic waste-based economy. This kind of economy addresses plastic waste collection, solutions and recycling.
- Material substitution and new technologies should not be targeted on eliminating plastic alone, these should rather be focused on resource efficiency and climate change impact.
David Azoulay (Managing Attorney, Centre for International Environmental Law) offered reflections on what was discussed by the previous speakers, as well as on the level of ambition that is needed in the negotiation process. His remarks addressed the goal we should aim for, the importance of considering health risks, financing options for the treaty, the role of science and of a rights-based approach to achieve our objective.
- Referring to the UNEA resolution, the goal is to end plastic pollution. As defined by the OECD, plastic pollution refers to “all emissions and risks resulting from plastic production, use, waste management, and leakage”. Thus, this goes way beyond addressing plastic waste.
- As many have pointed out, circular economy will be important to achieve this goal; we need to clarify what the term means. This concept is too often understood as merely focusing on the idea of resource efficiency. However, in its original intent and definition, a central aspect of circular economy is eliminating externalities. This includes health concerns, which is often omitted from discussions. In order to truly address the question of pollution, we need to bring back the consideration of the health externalities of plastics into the discussion.
- The new treaty will come at a financial cost. But rather that seeing this as an expensive endaevor, we must remember that the status quo has a massive cost as well. not adopting proper policies and provisions will in the end be immensely expensive.
- A successful process will require sufficient funds. At UNEA discussions came to the conclusion that we will probably need a dedicated fund to implement the treaty. Often, this means money from governments (through external aid, development aid, and such). However, referring to the polluter-pays principle which was adopted 30 years ago by the international community, we need to ensure that those who have financially benefited from the production of plastics over the past 50 years pays the true cost of remediation to support the solutions that we now have to put in place.
- We often hear about the need for science-based policy. In that respect, we need to recognize that science can be used in many ways. It can be weaponized to uphold the status quo and to prevent ambition to be realized or regulations to be adopted. Many renowned scientific institutions have investigated what needs to be done for us to achieve our goal. Science identified six main elements that we should work on, and the first one is reducing virgin plastic production.
- Adopting a rights-based approach is essential to ensure that we have win-win solutions, to foster a just transition, and to ensure that the question of the most impacted communities will be addressed.
- We cannot afford to lose momentum and we cannot limit our ambition to what we understand can be achieved now without upsetting the status quo. We need to keep our eyes in focus on the overachieving objective to end plastic pollution. We should not believe those who tell us that it is unrealistic. “Realism” is just really one way to uphold the status quo and it is that form of realism which has put us in the situation that we are in today and that requires the kind of ambition that we have set ourselves.
Felix Wertli (Head of the Global Affairs Section, Swiss Federal Office for the Environment) thanked all panelists and invited the Ambassadors of Peru and Ecuador to share a final take-away message to the audience.
H.E. Amb. Gustavo Meza-Cuadra Velásquez (Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Peru) reiterated Peru’s commitment to an ambitious treaty and stressed the importance of setting up an inclusive, transparent, and participatory process. The broad nature of the plastic problem requires us to include several points of view. Moreover, human rights approaches remain crucial to address the issue of most affected communities and countries. Solutions need to encompass the whole life cycle and we also need to solve the damage that has already been done. Having sufficient means of implementation will be important. For financing, we also need to consider who benefited most from this. Overall, we need to be ambitious and creative.
H.E. Luis Vayas (Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, Ecuador) thanked the panel for a fruitful discussion which provided us with a vision for an ambitious treaty. The new instrument will help to address the impacts on public health and the environment, and drive innovation and new opportunities for sustainable trade. We need to harness the extraordinary energy and expertise of the stakeholders to tackle plastic pollution across the whole life cycle. A collaborative multilateral approaches and coordination among processes is essential. Ecuador will continue to contribute with its expertise to the process and hopes to lead the international process on behalf of the international community. We need the five Cs – coordination, collaboration, cooperation, concessions, and compromises.
Welcome remarks focused on the importance of cooperation across the international system on plastic pollution and the value of ‘whole of government’ approaches.
In this spirit, the reception gathered delegations, officials stakeholders working on plastic pollution through a range of international organisations and processes, focused on issues ranging from environment and chemicals to health and trade that are relevant to plastic pollution, as well as students and researchers from the Geneva Graduate Institute.
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