Outcomes of Plastics Treaty Negotiations affect Action on Water and Climate

1 Jun 2023 by The Water Diplomat

Plastics pollutes the hydrosphere

The second meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) for a global Plastics Treaty began in Paris, France on the 29th of May. The meeting is scheduled to continue until June 2nd.  This follows from a resolution passed on the 2nd of March 2022 during the fifth United National Environmental Assembly (UNEA) in Nairobi. The resolution requested the UNEA President to convene an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee tasked with developing an international legally binding treaty on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment, by the end of 2024.

Prior to the opening of the session, on the 16th of May, UNEP had released a report examining some of the possible approaches to respond to the global problem of plastics pollution. This report emphasised the need for three key shifts, i.e. reuse: the transition from single uses of plastic to multiple uses, recycling: increasing the degree to which plastics are collected and recycled, and reorientation: shifting the market towards more sustainable alternatives. 

A key issue during the negotiations so far has been the difference of opinion between parties such as the European Union wishing to limit the production of plastic, and countries such as the United States and Saudi Arabia, wishing to encourage circularity (recycling and reuse). The evidence base for the risks of plastics to the environment and human health is a young and emerging field, but one author for instance mentions that an estimated 200 million tons of plastic end up on landfills and some 15 million tons end up in the ocean every year.  This is likely to be a low estimate, as (according to Plastics Europe) world plastics production has grown to 367 Megatons (MT) per year, of which only 9% is recycled, i.e. 334 MT per year ends up as waste. At the current rate of growth of plastics production, it has been predicted that plastics will grow to represent 15% of the global carbon budget. The outcomes of the plastics treaty are therefore strongly interlinked with global climate goals.

One of the first studies of microplastic contamination in bottled water from 2018 showed that in 259 samples of bottled water across 19 countries, 93% of the samples contained microplastics and each sample contained an average of 325 microplastics per litre. Similarly, one of the first studies into wash water discharge from plastics recycling facilities found that between 6 and 100 million microplastics particles per m³ were released into wash water during the washing process. With filtration, the majority of these particles were removed, but microplastics smaller than 5 nanometres in diameter were not removed. The study recommended incorporating microplastics into water quality regulations.