This Policy Roundtable opened the two-day virtual conference on global governance of plastic pollution on 30-31 August, entitled Global Governance of Plastic Pollution: Transforming the Global Plastics Economy. This session is part of the second series of the Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues, and a side event to the Ministerial Conference of Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution, co-convened by Ecuador, Germany, Ghana and Viet Nam.
The Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues
The Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution dialogues aim to facilitate further engagement and discussion among the stakeholders in International Geneva and beyond. In addition, they intend to address the plastic crisis and support coordinated approaches that can lead to more efficient decision making. Although the dialogues target stakeholders from all continents, they primarily aim to encourage increased engagement of the Geneva community in the run-up to various global environmental negotiations, such as:
- UNEA-5 (1st and 2nd sessions) in February 2021 and February 2022
- BRS COPs (online and in person segments) in July 2021 and in 2022
- SAICM ICCM5 at a date to be confirmed
The first series of dialogues took place from November 2020 to February 2021, to build momentum towards the first session of UNEA-5.
With the Ministerial Conference on Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution convening in hybrid format, with a core presence in Geneva, on 1-2 September 2021 and other formal and informal discussions ongoing in various fora, including trade, plastic remains high on international Geneva agenda. Building on the outcomes of the first series of dialogues and the recent policy developments, the Geneva Environment Network will continue with its partners to facilitate further engagement and synergies on tackling the plastic crisis, in cooperation with its partners.
The second series of dialogues, running from August 2021 to February 2022, is organized in collaboration with the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions Secretariat, the Center for International Environmental Law, the Global Governance Centre at the Graduate Institute Geneva, IUCN, Norway, Switzerland, and the Forum on Trade, Environment & the SDGs (TESS).
About the Policy Roundtable
This Policy Roundtable, organized within the framework of the Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues, opened the two-day virtual conference “Global Governance of Plastic Pollution: Transforming the Global Plastics Economy“, hosted by the Global Governance Centre at the Graduate Institute Geneva and the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), with support from several collaborating partners.
With over 100 countries now calling for the launch of negotiations for a new global treaty on plastic pollution in 2022, this policy roundtable will bring together a range of stakeholders to share views on the state of play and how a new treaty could help to: address gaps in international environmental cooperation on plastic pollution; tackle pollution across the entire life-cycle of plastics; and spur the economic transformation needed to shift the plastics economy – both upstream and downstream – toward more sustainable consumption and production.
Leading experts speaking at this session highlighted the importance of tackling the strong economic and political forces driving the expanding global plastics economy and associated pollution; the need for multi-stakeholder approaches; and the benefits of strengthened cooperation among the range of international organizations and multilateral processes that have a role to play in reducing plastic pollution.
Head, Marine and Freshwater Branch, UN Environment Programme
Global Plastics Policy Manager, WWF Norway
Lecturer, Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security, University of Wollongong
Senior Public Affairs Manager on Packaging and Environment, Nestlé
Senior Adviser, Adelphi Consulting
Senior Policy Manager, Institutions, Governments, and Cities, Ellen MacArthur Foundation
Managing Director, Ocean Plastics Leadership Network
Ocean Campaigner, Environmental Investigation Agency
Carolyn DEERE BIRKBECK
Director of the Forum on Trade, Environment & the SDGs (TESS) & Senior Researcher, Global Governance Centre, Graduate Institute Geneva
Leticia CARVALHO | Head, Marine and Freshwater Branch, UN Environment Programme
Since 2014, governments have adopted resolutions directly addressing the issue of marine litter, microplastics and plastic pollution. This clearly demonstrates the high level of political will in these topics and highlights the urgency of developing solutions to the global crisis of plastic pollution. In November 2020, the Ad-Hoc Open-Ended Expert Group on Marine Litter and Microplastics highlighted that maintaining the status quo was not an option. The necessity of further action across the plastic lifecycle is required to address marine litter, microplastics and plastic pollution in moving forward, including a circular economy approach. The cost of inaction exceeds the cost of taking action to protect the environment and human health.
UNEP is pleased that there are a number of ongoing processes led by countries in order to garner momentum and keep the discussions active at the highest level of the political agenda. UNEP is preparing to launch a report on the marine litter and microplastics assessment that provides important conclusions on the state and the impact of plastic pollution not only in the ocean but also on other ecosystems and human health.
Marine litter is the most visible part of plastic pollution and significantly effects the global economy. Costs related to greenhouse gas emissions, human health, invasive species and clean-up operations mount up to USD 350 trillion a year. By 2040, plastic waste is expected to present an annual financial risk of USD 100 billion for businesses that would need to bear the cost of waste management.
Eirik LINDEBJERG | Global Plastics Policy Manager, WWF Norway
The global plastic pollution problem and the global plastic economy are completely unregulated at the international level. There have been some efforts recently by governments to deal with some of the problems, but they are inadequate for the actions needed. These are some of the reasons for calls on an international plastic treaty and more than 100 governments have expressed interest to start negotiations (for an overview of government support to date, visit the WWF Global Plastic Navigator).
Most environmental problems have a governance framework. This is completely lacking in plastic pollution. Any business that is operating and trying to solve plastic pollution will have to deal with different national legislations, standards on what is are recyclable plastic products, and waste management practices. It becomes a difficult challenge to solve the problem. A international plastic pollution treaty can provide a coherent strategy, a harmonized framework and a legally binding mechanism to solve plastic pollution at a global level.
The treaty should set a clear global goal to minimize and eliminate plastic pollution in nature. There needs to be monitoring and reporting mechanisms, a scientific body to ensure we are heading in the right direction and a harmonized regulatory framework that sets standards that will make it easier to recycle a product in one country but produced in another.
The Ministerial Conference on Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution in Geneva this week is the first step that will, hopefully, lead to a global agreement. We hope that the UN Environment Assembly will adapt the necessary negotiation mandates to achieve it.
The latest WWF white paper on the new treaty, was out on 30 August 2021
Karen RAUBENHEIMER | Lecturer, Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security, University of Wollongong
In the first report by the Nordic Council of Ministers, the sustainability criteria were central to the architecture and implementation of a new agreement. Focusing on the role of the sustainability criteria, these would provide global guidance on product design, environmental performance of the material across the lifecycle, particularly at the end of life. These criteria are the key underlying mechanisms the agreement must deliver in order to achieve a sustainable consumption and production model for plastics on a global scale.
As per the hierarchy presented in the Nordic report, the first level would see the sustainability criteria outlined more broadly in the agreement. The second level would provide further details, protocols and guidelines. The third level would indicate the tools to adapt legislations and processes through voluntary and mandatory instruments to the local context and protect livelihoods.
These sustainability criteria negotiated at the international level must aim to ultimately improve product design across the global value chain. The need for improved design has been stated a number of times in the intergovernmental level. The draft statement of the Ministerial Conference echoes the UNEA resolutions and states that preventive measures should be prioritized, as well as fostering reusability, recyclability and repairability.
Many resolutions and statements that we’ve already adopted provide a starting point for the type of broader language that could be negotiated with to define the sustainability criteria. They must also provide the environmental performance boundaries within which industry innovation is permitted to take place. If materials and products are fit to reuse, remanufacture and recycle in the local context, they will provide the first step to give them value at the end of life and drive the economic transformation we wish to see in the global plastic value chain. But product design will not be successful on its own so the global agreement must promote national legislative frameworks that must actively drive investment in the necessary collection, sorting and recycling services.
The sustainability criteria can reduce or eliminate the unnecessary, avoidable and problematic products that do not meet the criteria or design standards; promote circularity through design and investment according to the waste hierarchy; and, reduce hazard across the lifecycle of plastics.
Jodie ROUSSELL | Senior Public Affairs Manager on Packaging and Environment, Nestlé
When we look at the challenge of plastic today, we need to fundamentally rethink the way we produce, use and reuse plastic, and also its disposal either at the end of life or as a recovered material. We recognize at Nestlé that we have a role to play in the global effort aimed at stopping plastic pollution and we’re committed to tackling this issue. We’ve set a number of concrete targets to create a circular economy for plastics and address the challenge with voluntary initiatives such as the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the Plastics Pact, the National Plastic Action Partnerships through the World Economic Forum, and resources for reporting on our plastic performance. Nestlé also made two major commitments: 1) Reduce the use of virgin plastic by one-third by 2025 and 2) 100% of packaging will be recyclable or reusable by 2025.
Our plastic strategy looks at redesigning our current packaging, developing new schemes for reuse and refill in conjunction with retail partners, shifting to paper and mono material plastics, looking at investment and partnership opportunities in infrastructure, and shifting mindsets as we look to deliver food safely with a high level of quality to our consumers and retailers. We think that a coordinated international response is necessary because we need to align business and governments with a shared understanding of the causes of plastic pollution and a clear approach to addressing them.
A full lifecycle approach ranging from fossil- or bio-based plastics for resin production at the upper end of the value chain all the way through packaging production, product manufacturing, retailing to consumers, collecting, sorting and recycling of recovered materials are necessary. Nestlé believes that by harmonizing regulatory standards, mandating the development of national targets and action plans, defining common metrics in methodologies, and supporting innovation and infrastructure and development, the UN treaty can help us do all of those things. We also think that it can be done at speed and at scale; we don’t have time to waste. The business imperative is clear, we have to work together to solve the problem and Nestlé is looking forward to doing its part.
Nils SIMON | Senior Adviser, Adelphi Consulting
In 2016, we published one of the papers on the need for an international plastic treaty with all the details and necessities to launch negotiations. We’ve come a long way thanks to advocacy work of the different stakeholders. About eight weeks ago, we published another article on Science with a group of 14 researchers, carving out the details and core goals that a plastic agreement needs to have in order to make a difference, such as:
- Minimize virgin plastic production and consumption. We must reduce the amount of new plastic being put into the environment. No matter how efficient one’s waste management and recycling systems are, there will always be leakage. Looking at the necessity to limit global warming to 1.5C and to reach greenhouse-gas neutrality by 2050, we estimated that 2040 would be the latest year when the production of new and virgin plastic should be phased out or minimized with a few exemptions for highly sensitive areas such as medical equipment.
- Facilitation of a safe circularity for plastics. They need to be designed for circularity based on a set of binding standards that should be negotiated within the confinements of the new agreement that should, hopefully, be launched at UNEA 5.2 next year. The technical standards should be accompanied by information sharing, such as the content of the plastic, across borders in order to facilitate waste management and recycling.
- Elimination of plastic pollution in the environment as there is already a lot of plastic waste in the environment posing threats to wildlife, human health and the economy.
- Outline a set of elements in the agreement to include tracking progress, monitoring, assessing the progress of government implementation and supporting mechanisms such as funding for the establishment of national plastic pollution prevention measurements and plans and for further strengthening the agreement.
- Include a science-policy interface to transfer knowledge from the scientific community towards policy makers and vice versa.
Carsten WACHHOLZ | Senior Policy Manager, Institutions, Governments, and Cities, Ellen MacArthur Foundation
To be effective, any new governance scheme needs to acknowledge that the problem of plastic pollution starts long before plastic reaches our oceans so the solutions must not be framed as combating marine plastic only. Until now, plastic pollution focused narrowly on improving waste management or clean ups, banning single-use plastic bags and reducing the use of littered items. But none of these measures will work in isolation as the climate, biodiversity and plastic pollution crises are interlinked.
We believe that addressing plastic pollution requires a concerted approach to create a circular economy. The ambition and scope of the UN treaty will have to match the overall objective of keeping plastics in the economy and stopping their leakage into the environment. These measures should relate to the full cycle of the plastic product in various sectors and require a multi-layered governance approach.
Designing an effective global governance framework with this level of complexity will cause challenges in the negotiations. What are the most effective policy responses that can be identified in the treaty as priority actions? Which targets, obligations and measures can be inscribed in the legal text of the global agreement and applicable worldwide? Which ones require geographical and sectoral differentiation by national action plans and/or industry standards to be workable in both the developed and developing world?
The Minamata Convention on Mercury can provide inspiration in this regard as it includes provisions that relate to the entire lifecycle of mercury, including controls and reductions across a range of different products, processes and industries where mercury is used, released or emitted. This approach can be adapted to plastics rather than relying exclusively on a piecemeal of national actions, trusting that the efforts will deliver the required global change.
It is key in our view to build further alignment between governments around the potential key elements of a new UN treaty building on a clearly formulated joint vision and ambitious global goals that are measurable, time-bounded and achievable. A dedicated international scientific body will be needed to assess and track not only the extent of the plastic pollution problem but also provide guidance on the solutions needed and review the effectiveness of existing policy measures. There should be national actions plans ideally linked to targets, criteria and metrics, including robust reporting and monitoring mechanisms. Most crucially, especially for developing countries, a comprehensive implementation support, including technical and operational assistance to parties with limited capacities, as well as an innovation platform to share and scale the latest knowledge and solutions would be key.
A finance mechanism is also needed to mobilize and channel both public and private capital to parties in need of assistance to implement their national action plans and other obligations. In addition, we should establish a process to develop specific protocols for addressing, for instance, sector-specific challenges and/or tailoring them to the different conditions in developed or developing countries.
To highlight some of our engagement with companies in the plastic packaging value chain, we identified in our latest progress report on the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment three areas that could inform priorities in the new treaty: 1) set virgin plastic reduction targets which needs to be underpinned by increased action in the elimination of plastics that we do not need and on scaling up reuse business models; 2) beyond the solutions we can implement today, we need a well-funded research, development and innovation agenda for the solutions and materials we need to replace those plastics that we cannot keep in circulation; and, 3) provide ongoing, dedicated and sufficient funding for the collection, sorting and recycling of plastics in which all industry players introducing packaging to the market contribute, for example through well-designed Extended Producer Responsibility schemes.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation recently published a white paper A New UN Treaty to Address Plastic Pollution that sets out the foundation’s perspective and support the transition to a circular economy for plastics.
Erin McCLUSKEY | Managing Director, Ocean Plastics Leadership Network
We are dealing with one of the most complicated issues of our time. We have more than 100 countries in favor of a global treaty or instrument to address it. We have a solutions spectrum from EPR to alternative materials, recycling and plastic offsets. Many of these solutions create challenges and disagreements between the different organizations – a financial sector putting pressures on ESG metrics to improve the plastic value chain but, at times, difficult to implement when companies are beholden to shareholder value metrics; trade and advocacy groups; universities producing incredible research; NGOs across the various plastic spectrum; consumers who are confused and recycling at low levels; and, waste reclaimers in the global South that’s the last line of defense between plastics and the ocean.
This year, with the support of Greenpeace and WWF, we launched the Global Plastics Treaty Dialogues to engage the different plastic stakeholders in a single forum so we can move forward in having a plastics treaty in record time. In order to transition to a circular plastics economy, we’d also need to develop a new type of leadership that’s collaborative, seeks to understand and builds bridges.
Tom GAMMAGE | Ocean Campaigner, Environmental Investigation Agency
As a marine scientist, I’ve directly observed the most visible impacts of plastic pollution such as seeing pristine coral reefs and UNESCO World Heritage Sites degraded due to plastic waste. But plastic pollution is not exclusively a marine problem.
Plastic is a precious commodity but rather than being valued as such, it is negligently disposed of, frivolously used and irresponsibly produced costing the economy billions each year. Plastic pollution drives climate change and biodiversity loss at every stage of the lifecycle and the question lies on how to retain the benefits of plastic and eliminate the negatives. Our leaders should focus on the problem at the source as well as through interventions at every stage of the plastic lifecycle (see EIA report Convention on Plastic Pollution). The four pillars of action we identify are:
- Monitoring and reporting to track progress, including quantifying the presence of plastic in the environment; identifying point sources where plastic enters the environment; further elucidating the impact of plastic on human health, ecosystems and habitats; and monitoring the transition to a sustainable and circular plastic economy.
- Preventing plastic pollution by eliminating the discharges of plastic into all environmental compartments and achieving a safe, non-toxic and circular plastic economy. We would also need to cap the spiraling production of plastic that is expected to quadruple in 2050, end the petrochemical subsidies that exist, and boost domestic recycling.
- Improving coordination to address plastic pollution as there’s lack of coherence between the different conventions and initiatives that tackle plastic pollution.
- Providing technical and financial support particularly in the case of economies in transition. We recommend that UNEA strongly considers a dedicated multi-lateral fund to facilitate predictable funding flows to drive green jobs.
In addition to the live Zoom and Youtube transmissions, the video is available on this webpage.
- How can international trade policy help tackle plastic pollution? DR. Carolyn Deere Birkbeck and Mahesh Sugathan | Global Governance Centre
- Research project on transforming the global plastics economy
- Forum on Trade, Environment and the SDGs (TESS)
- Global Governance Centre at Graduate Institute
- Geneva Trade Platform
- Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL)
- Plastics and the Environment | Geneva Environment Network
- A New UN Treaty to Adress Plastic Pollution | Ellen MacArthur Foundation | August 2021
- It’s Time for Global Action to Eliminate Plastic Pollution | PEW | 10 June 2021
- Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues on Plastics and Trade | Geneva Environment Network | 4 February 2021
- The Business Case for a UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution | WWF, Ellen MacArthur Foundation & Boston Consulting Group | 2020
- Global trade in plastics: insights from the first life-cycle trade database | Diana Barrowclough, Carolyn Deere Birkbeck & Julien Christen | UNCTAD Research Paper | December 2020
- Trade and trade policy in the fight against plastic pollution: What are the challenges and opportunities? | UNCTAD | 30 September 2020
- Research Paper – The Political Economy of the Global Plastics Economy and Pollution: Production, Trade and Governance | Diana Barrowclough and Carolyn Deere Birkbeck | 9 January 2020
- Policy Brief – Strengthening international cooperation to tackle plastic pollution: options for the WTO | Carolyn Deere Birkbeck | 9 January 2020