Infographic on the Journey Towards Ending Plastic Pollution – highlighting the key processes, milestones and stakeholders of the INC as they conceptualize and negotiate an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution. Created by IKHAPP and GRID-Arendal.
The second INC meeting was held in Paris 28. May – 2. June. This article provides an insight into the unfolding debates during INC-2, including potential elements of a future plastic treaty. The resolution to develop an international legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution during the United Nations Environment Assembly in 2022 is often considered a historic resolution in the context of environmental governance. This is because it offers a “once in a planet opportunity”¹ to comprehensively address the systemic and transboundary challenge of plastic pollution through a holistic life cycle approach, promoting transparency and a just transition.
The intergovernmental negotiations are well underway, with a highly ambitious timeline to develop the treaty by the end of 2024, to be adopted at the first Conference of Parties mid-2025. These are the highlights of the process so far:
«Perpetual Plastic Machine» – A pop-up installation in Paris, by Greenpeace in collaboration with artists Benjamin Von Wong and Shailene Woodley. Picture by Emmy Nøklebye.
Behind the doors of INC-2
Plastics does not only have negative impacts when mismanaged in the environment but affects people and the environment at each stage of the lifecycle – from the extraction of fossil fuel, production, manufacturing, use, disposal, and recovery, impacting biodiversity, climate change, human health, and human rights.
The plastic treaty has the potential to reduce these impacts through setting harmonized and ambitious common goals, but effective implementation on a national level requires engagement of all stakeholders across the value chain to participate in finding solutions.
The mandate of the plastic treaty calls for the “widest and most effective participation possible”, yet the participation and role of stakeholders and observers have been widely debated during previous INC meetings. Some highlight the importance of including the knowledge and perspectives from civil society organizations, scientists, indigenous and traditional knowledge holders, rights-holders, and those disproportionately impacted by plastic pollution, whilst others believe time spent on facilitating for stakeholder participation steals valuable time from the negotiations.
Whilst civil society groups often advocate loudly for the protection of the environment and human health, and scientific organizations aim for the treaty to be based on scientifically sound and independent knowledge, the presence and influence of industry is often less visible.
During INC-2 some stakeholders have voiced concern as to whether industries that have vested economic interests in the outcomes of the treaty process should have a place at the negotiation table. For example, some petrochemical industries would be significantly impacted if the treaty were to set specific targets and caps on production and extraction of virgin plastic, whilst large multinational brand and micro-small and medium sized enterprises would likely be impacted by trade and reduction measures limiting the use of certain plastic polymer, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) rules, and targets to eliminate unnecessary and avoidable plastic products, such as many types of Single-Use Plastics (SUPs).
[Civil society demonstrating against petrochemical industries influencing the plastic treaty, UNESCO, Paris, INC-2] Source: https://globalrec.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/05/inc2-paris_no-space-waste-pickers_20230529_170552-scaled.jpg
Emerging fault lines during INC-2
The ambition of INC-2 was to determine the treaty’s scope and momentum toward voluntary and legally binding measures. A desired outcome was also to agree for the Chair, with the Secretariat’s support, to develop a zero-draft text of the treaty before INC-3.
A substantial part of the first half of the week was spent discussing the rules of procedure, which were provisionally approved during the preparatory Open-Ended Working Group meeting a year ago. There is however disagreement related to voting power, as to whether the EU should be able to vote on behalf of its members who are not physically present, and if substantial decisions should be made by consensus or a majority. Some see these as halting tactics on minor issues by certain countries, but these are fundamental elements to be ruled out, as it would determine whether one or a few member states can veto certain decisions, rather than decisions being made by democratic elections.
«Consensus is what kills democracy» – Senegalese delegate in response to member states wanting to bracket provisionally adopted RoPs.
Once the discussions of potential elements of the plastic treaty finally commenced in the latter part of the week, reoccurring themes included measures and impacts across the plastic lifecycle.
While some member states framed plastic pollution primarily as a waste management and littering issue, many called for a holistic approach which addresses leakages across the lifecycle of plastics, including upstream, midstream, and downstream solutions.
Several members reiterated that “we cannot recycle ourselves out of the plastic pollution crisis”, meaning that downstream waste management and clean-up measures are not enough, and must be complemented with clear targets for reducing production, consumption, and the use of chemicals and polymers of concern, as well as strategies to reuse, reduce and redesign plastics.
The need for global targets, criteria and requirements was highlighted by many, whilst others favored voluntary national commitments and country driven approaches, considering national capacities and circumstances.
The INC plastic treaty gavel made from recycled plastics bottle tops from the Dandora landfill in Nairobi, gifted to UNEP by Norway. Source: https://enb.iisd.org/plastic-pollution-marine-environment-negotiating-committee-inc2-2jun23.
Overarching objectives and core obligations
A primary task during the meeting was to discuss the treaty’s overarching objective. Many favored the focused objectives of ending plastic pollution and protecting human health and the environment, whilst some wanted specific reference to “the marine environment”, in line with the UNEA 5/14 resolution.
Others favored the objective to encompass reducing production and promoting a circular plastic economy, and there were contrasting views around the inclusion of a time-bound target – some indicated it could underline the urgency of addressing the problem but also limit the lifetime of the instrument.
Source: Adapted from UNEP-PP-INC.2-4 English.pdf
Some of the recurring themes for core obligations of the treaty included options for phasing out, reducing and/or banning the use, production, and consumption of primary plastic polymers, problematic and avoidable plastic products, chemicals, and polymers of concern, and microplastics.
Obligations for strengthening waste management, fostering design for circularity, encouraging reduction, reuse, and repair of plastic products and packaging, and promoting the use of safe and sustainable alternatives were also considered.
Eliminating plastic leakages to the environment and addressing existing plastic pollution beyond national jurisdictions were also considered, as well as facilitating a just transition and protecting human health from the adverse impacts of plastic pollution.
Some of these elements could become part of mandatory core obligations of the treaty, whilst others can become part of voluntary measures or National Action Plans (NAPs) – but that will continue to be debated in the upcoming INC meetings.
Means and measures of implementation
Means of implementation refers to the resources, policies and actions needed for all parties to meet their obligations set out by the treaty, whilst implementation measures refer to the tools and mechanisms required for all parties to implement the treaty and ensure progress towards the set objectives and core obligations.
Member states agreed that NAPs are a suitable tool to coordinate and support implementation of the instrument on a national level. Some saw the value of NAPs to be developed based on harmonized templates and common elements, whilst others emphasized the need for taking into consideration different national circumstances, including the potential burden of monitoring and reporting progress. The below points summarize additional matters which was discussed during the informal sessions as part of contact group 2:
Summary of outcomes
The member states gave the Chair, with the support of the Secretariat, to develop a zero-draft text for the plastic treaty to be discussed at INC-3, based on the potential objective, core obligations, and means and mechanisms of implementation discussed during the meeting and submissions made by member states. A decision was also taken on the locations for the upcoming INCs, despite concerns from Russia regarding visa issues faced by delegates to attend COP 15 of the UN Biodiversity Conference in Montreal in the end of 2023.
The Secretariat and the Canadian delegate promised that all possible steps would be taken to ensure that all member states and observers would obtain their visa in time for the upcoming INC meetings, so it was agreed that the third session will take place in Kenya in November this year, the fourth session in Canada (2024) and the fifth and final session in South Korea (2024). Furthermore, vice chairs were elected for the INC-Bureau, representing Small-Island Developing States (SIDS), the African Group, Asia-Pacific, and GRULAC (Group of Latin America and the Caribbean), as well as for the Eastern European and Western European and Others Group, after a secret ballot vote due to conflicting views on the nominees in the latter two regions. As discussed above, the Rules of Procedure have yet to be adopted due to conflicting views on voting rights in Rule 37 and 38.1, which will be further deliberated during the intersessional period and INC-3 later this year.
¹ Quote by Inger Anderson, Executive Director, UNEP
² See reflections from the Open-Ended Working Group Meeting shared by IKHAPP members here
This article provides an insight into the unfolding debates during INC-2 including potential elements of a future plastic treaty. The views expressed here are based on the author’s understanding and experiences and is not necessarily reflecting all the different perspectives emerging across the often-times overlapping plenary sessions, informal discussions, and side-events across the negotiation space.
Corresponding author: Emmy Nøklebye, Research Scientist, the Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA), section for International Environment and Development. email@example.com.
Edited by: Diya Chakravorty and Caroline Enge
Funding: The research leading to this article was supported by the India-Norway cooperation project on capacity building for reducing plastic and chemical pollution in India (INOPOL), funded by the Royal Norwegian Embassy in New Delhi, in collaboration with IKHAPP, funded by the Research Council of Norway.