The Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment, has opened talks this week in Punta del Este, Uruguay. Delegates are faced with a daunting challenge.
The challenge is the growing global plastics pollution problem that defies efforts by individual countries to stem the tide. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), global plastic production doubled from 2000 to 2019, from 234 million tonnes (Mt) to 460 Mt, while plastic waste more than doubled during the same period, from 156 Mt to 353 Mt. In 2019 alone, 22 Mt of plastic material leaked into the environment. By 2019, 109 Mt had accumulated in rivers and 30 Mt in oceans.
Figure 1: The Scope of the Plastic Problem
Source: OECD. 2022. Global Plastics Outlook
The UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) mandated the formation of the INC in resolution 5.14, charging it with completing, by the end of 2024, negotiations on an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, tackling the plastics pollution problem through a comprehensive approach, covering the full lifecycle of plastics. The resolution calls for the instrument to promote a comprehensive lifecycle approach to chemicals and waste and “sustainable production and consumption of plastics through, among other things, product design and environmentally sound waste management, including through resource efficiency and circular economy approaches.” In many ways, the plastics agreement being sought would be the first concrete, legally-binding embodiment of a comprehensive lifecycle approach to chemicals and waste that the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) has emphasized for years, and which is envisioned as a focus of the post-2020 platform for the sound management of chemicals and waste currently under negotiation as a successor to SAICM.
How to Tackle the Challenge Comprehensively?
Beyond the objectives, form, and other nuts and bolts of the instrument, the Plastics INC negotiators will need to consider how the instrument’s obligations, commitments, and control measures can best address the full lifecycle of plastics and all aspects of their sustainable consumption and production. In addition to the official documentation prepared by the INC Secretariat, many entities, including intergovernmental and non-governmental, have suggested through their submissions, position papers, and thought pieces numerous policy options and ideas to include in the instrument. These can be categorized, as the OECD does in its Global Plastics Outlook, into five basic approaches:
- Reduce the size of the problem;
- Design for circularity;
- Close the loop;
- Close leakage pathways; and
Figure 2: Policy Approaches to Reduce Plastics Leakage
EPR: extended producer responsibility; MSW: municipal solid waste; WWTP: wastewater treatment plant
Source: OECD, 2022. Global Plastics Outlook: Economic Drivers, Environmental Impacts and Policy Options
This policy brief summarizes some of the issues/options being floated for consideration by the INC negotiators, as well as two crosscutting challenges identified in the submissions that the instrument should address, namely significant information/data gaps and problematic aspects of trade.
Reduce the Size of the Problem
Reducing the size of the problem encompasses not only curbing the volume of plastic products that become waste, especially plastic waste prone to leakage into the environment, but also steering demand to those plastics that are likely to be successfully reused or recycled.
Address Hazardous Chemicals in Plastics: Many inputs to the Plastic INC process stress the importance of tackling the issue of chemicals in plastics. A recent study estimates that over 2,400 of the 10,000 monomers, additives, and processing aids used in plastics are of potential concern to human health and safety as they meet one or more of the persistence, bioaccumulation, and toxicity criteria in EU regulations. Their unidentified presence in plastic-containing products, combined with a limited understanding of their environmental and health implications, can inhibit the reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishing, or recycling of plastics and plastic products, and underscore the need for adequate end-of-life management/destruction capacity.
Coming to grips with the issue may prove difficult. There is no centralized data source on chemicals currently used in the production of plastics, plastic products, and plastic parts. Most jurisdictions do not require disclosure on the chemicals used through reporting and/or labeling, and most industrial, commercial and consumer users have no way to discover the chemical components, short of laboratory analysis. Some jurisdictions restrict the use of some chemicals, such as phthalates or brominated flame retardants, but only in certain uses/applications and not others.
Some initial work in this direction has begun. The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) launched a plastic additives initiative that generated an overview of 400 additives used in high volumes in the EU, and a practical guide on how to characterize the uses of additives in plastic materials and how to start estimating the related exposure. The Global Environment Facility (GEF) project on Emerging Chemical Policy Issues under the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) focuses on Chemicals in Products. Project activities seek to increase the ambition of different stakeholders to track and control chemicals of concern in products, including plastics, along the value chains of electronics, toys, and building products sectors. A 2021 study released by the project found 419 chemicals in hard, soft, and foam plastic materials used in children’s toys, 126 of which can potentially harm children’s health, including 31 plasticizers, 18 flame retardants, and eight fragrances.
Ban, Restrict, and/or Tax Certain Types of Plastics: Many inputs call for bans or restrictions on problematic plastics and plastic products, although there is little consensus on which plastics to target. The area of greatest consensus concerns intentional introduction of microplastics (plastic particles smaller than 5 millimeters (mm) in diameter) to cosmetics, detergents, paints, polish, and coatings. Canada, China, the EU, New Zealand, the UK, and the US have already moved to ban the practice, and several companies have announced a voluntary end to it.
A second possible target could be single-use plastics (SUPs). According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), 127 countries have adopted measures to ban, tax, or regulate SUPs, but most target just one or two products that are highly visible components of litter, usually shopping bags and/or drinking straws. A few also include polystyrene (PS) or expanded PS (EPS) food packaging and/or cutlery and drink stirrers. The EU’s SUP Directive also regulates SUP bottles, caps and lids, and products made from oxo-degradable plastic, and requires marking and monitoring of single-use sanitary items, wet wipes, and tobacco products with filters and filters marketed for use in combination with tobacco products. The variance among national measures leads to market and consumer confusion and a regulatory patchwork difficult to navigate and effectively enforce. An international instrument could help harmonize SUP regulation.
Some actors, primarily NGOs, propose freezing and then phasing out – in the way that the Montreal Protocol does with ozone-depleting substances – the use of polymers that are not or are rarely recycled in practice, such as PS, EPS, polycarbonate (PC), polyurethane (PUR), and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). While all plastics are theoretically recyclable, as industry often stresses, not all are recycled in practice. When these polymers are included in a plastics collection stream, their presence can hinder the recycling of polymers that have more viable recycling markets. PS, EPS, PC, and PVC, for example, are rarely recycled due to technical, economic, and other constraints. Producers of each material claim that recent technological advances may change this recycling outlook, and that safer, economically viable, and more environmentally friendly alternatives do not exist for key applications.
Use of Economic Measures to Restrain Plastics Demand: The OECD suggests restraining demand through a policy mix that includes plastic taxes, such as a tax on SUPs and/or a global tax on all plastic packaging of at least USD 1,000 per tonne, recycled content targets, reuse targets, promotion of service models, and extended producer responsibility (EPR) with fee modulation schemes (i.e., lower fees for items with higher recycled content). Among the measures suggested is also the removal of fossil fuels subsidies. Since most plastics are derived from feedstock made from fossil fuels, removal of subsidies would make virgin plastics less economically attractive.
Design for Circularity
Whereas most actors embrace the concept of promoting sustainable design to ensure a circular economy for plastics, work on how best to require or stimulate such design is at the early stages. Standards bodies, such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) or the European standards bodies CEN/CENELEC, have begun general work on design for circularity, but have yet to turn to plastics specifically. While the OECD has offered general guidance and specific case studies in designing sustainable plastics for biscuit wrappers, detergent bottles, flooring, and insulation, further work on other types of plastic products could be encouraged and/or embraced by an international instrument as technical guidance. Work is also needed to ensure that chemicals of concern are not used in plastics at the design phase, which will enable a toxic-free circular economy and allow for reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishing, or recycling of plastic products and materials without concern for re-circulating hazardous chemicals.
INC-1 submissions have put forth numerous ideas for inclusion in the instrument for negotiators to ponder. These include:
- international rules requiring consistent labeling of plastic materials, such as the use of specific symbols, abbreviations, and/or codes for particular types of plastic;
- international standards/rules on identifying and controlling hazardous substances in plastics;
- international product-based standards regarding recycled content (for example, the EU already requires PET bottles to have 25% recycled content by 2025, and 30% by 2030), recyclability, reparability, biodegradability, and compostability;
- a mandate to increase product lifespans by 10-15%;
- international rules about use of key terms used in labeling and marketing, such as “recyclable,” “biodegradable,” “compostable,” and the identification of recycled content; and
- spur redesign of flexible and multi-material plastics, which make up 50% of plastic in short-lived products but account for 80% of plastic pollution.
In addition, an OECD study of existing EPR schemes suggests that those that directly target product characteristics (such as weight, recyclability, etc.) incentivize ecodesign, while another study of EPR schemes in the EU suggests that EPR schemes provide even greater incentive to ecodesign when coupled with economic instruments, such as landfill and incineration taxes, pay-as-you-throw schemes, and “eco-modulated fees” that favor materials cheaper to collect, sort, and recycle.
Close the Loop
The concept of “closing the loop” implies increasing plastics reuse and recycling as much as possible. Some of the ideas put forward in the submissions include:
- Empower the informal sector: Globally, the informal sector (waste pickers) already recycles more plastics than the formal sector, and in developing countries, the gap is even wider. The informal sector is a huge employer of mostly marginalized labor operating in poor working conditions but with plastic sorting skills that often rival or better mechanical sorters. Ideas for inclusion of the sector have already been explored in an April 2022 expert group meeting, and the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers has issued a declaration with their demands on inclusion in EPR schemes involving plastics;
- Establish deposit return schemes for all suitable plastic products: negotiators would need to determine which products should be deemed “suitable”;
- Increase investment in plastic waste collection and sorting: currently about 22% of total annual plastic waste is left uncollected. Some jurisdictions, even in OECD countries, collect no plastics at all, some only collect certain resins, and often what is collected is unclean and unsorted at source, so it must undergo a costly cleaning and sorting process;
- Double mechanical recycling capability: mechanical recycling is less capital intensive than chemical recycling and a mature technology, so easier to adopt widely. The drawback is that most mechanical recycling produces lower-quality material that is used mostly for lower-value applications (“downcycling”).
- Scale up alternative recycling technologies: while chemical recycling is technically feasible in many cases and offers the potential to expand recycling to additional resins and waste streams, most chemical recycling facilities are still in the pilot or demonstration stages due to their economic costs, including energy intensity. This technology also tends to produce toxic by-products, so it may not always be environmentally beneficial.
The OECD offers additional suggestions for government commitments under the future agreement: adopt a global recycled content target for plastics of 40%, possibly with target dates differentiating between OECD and non-OECD countries; adopt landfill or incinerator taxes for plastics; and adopt EPR schemes for products that use plastics heavily.
Figure 3: Share of Total Plastic Leakage into the Environment, 2019
Source: OECD, 2022. Global Plastics Outlook: Economic Drivers, Environmental Impacts and Policy Options
Close Leakage Pathways
According to the OECD, 88% of plastic leakage to the environment (19.4 Mt in 2019) involves macroplastics (plastic items larger than 5 mm in diameter), and 82% of that is the result of inadequate collection and disposal of plastics waste, with the lion’s share involving non-OECD countries.
In closing leakage pathways, the principal idea is to ensure collection of macroplastics and their reuse and recycling where possible, and proper disposal where recycling and reuse are not possible. For example, the OECD suggests committing parties to the plastics instrument to eliminating collected mismanaged waste by a target date, such as 2060.
Improving collection, sorting, recycling, and disposal will also involve significant investment by all countries in waste management infrastructure, but the cost will fall disproportionally on low- and middle-income developing countries. The OECD estimates that for low- to middle-income countries with a moderate to low policy stringency and a low level of existing infrastructure, the initial investment required to implement the moderately ambitious investment profile is EUR 20.2 per capita, with annualized current costs of EUR 6.5 per capita. This would mean globally an initial investment of about EUR 80 billion and an annualized cost of more than EUR 25 billion. Since taxes and levies in developing countries are unlikely to provide the levels of funds needed, such estimates are likely to spark calls among developing countries for a financial component to the international plastics agreement.
Some actors also call for special regimes to tackle special problem plastics, such as fishing gear and agricultural plastics, that may represent a small portion of the total macroplastics waste volume, but their direct use in the environment is problematic and there currently exists little collection and management.
To close leakage pathways for microplastics, improved wastewater treatment plants can catch many of these particles, at least in urban settings – which will also require additional funding resources for most developing countries. Care must be taken that the microplastics caught by the treatment plants do not end up in sewage sludge applied in agriculture (a practice authorized in many countries), where it might help microplastics enter both the environment and food systems.
Some of the ideas suggested here include: extending EPR schemes to fund litter clean-up; litter clean-up campaigns, including regular beach and riverbed clean-ups; projects to intercept leaked plastics in rivers, before they get to oceans; and projects to recover plastics already in oceans.
Estimates of the costs of such clean-up activities, and assigning responsibility for bearing such costs, vary widely.
Crosscutting Challenge: Information/Data
The documents prepared for INC-1, the OECD GPO, and the many submissions by civil society to the INC process all point to many significant data gaps which must be addressed if an international instrument is to be effectively implemented. These include:
- disaggregated data about plastics production, uses, recycling, reuse, disposal, litter/leakage, waste trade (by country), resin/application, type;
- for many countries, basic data about national waste management – collection, access to adequate recycling, non-recycling data (by type, including disposal, incineration, and dumping);
- the volumes, types, and health and environmental effects of chemical additives in plastics;
- data on plastics incorporated in products, including in waste and traded products;
- the impact of microplastics on human and wildlife health; and
- the impact of plastic waste on soil ecosystems.
Some of the waste-related data gaps might be filled by further adjustments to the Basel Convention’s recently updated Practical Guidance for the Development of Inventories of Plastic Waste, made obligatory and supplemented by national reporting requirements under the international instrument. Missing data on health and environmental questions could be farmed out to the science-policy panel on chemicals and waste currently under negotiation in a separate track.
Crosscutting Challenge: Trade
A second challenge that emerges clearly from all discussions involving the possible international instrument involves how to address the trade dimensions of the plastics pollution issue, for example:
- how best to craft a regime that promotes circularity across borders (for example, by promoting regional or subregional recycling of particular plastics in order to capitalize on economies of scale and comparative advantages) without encouraging plastic waste dumping or raising new, unintended trade barriers;
- how to improve transparency in plastics trade (including plastics embedded in products); and
- how to improve transparency in plastics included among the waste trade (for example, some plastics now being hidden in shipments marked as “fuel”).
The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has initiated work on some of these questions, while the World Trade Organization (WTO) has initiated an informal dialogue on plastics pollution and environmentally sustainable plastics trade, which is exploring these issues and how the WTO might address them.
Tying It All Together by the End of 2024
According to their UNEA mandate, the Plastics INC negotiators have just two years to accomplish what has never been done before in a global agreement: solve a fast-growing pollution problem through a package of controls and complementary measures involving an entire substance class, from cradle-to-grave. The new instrument would need to incorporate resources efficiency and circular economy approaches, overcome significant data gaps, and avoid trade pitfalls.
As this policy brief demonstrates, there is no shortage of ideas about what to include in the global agreement to meet that goal. Once negotiators agree on the legal structure of the treaty, they would need to consider how these elements could be reflected in its core obligations, and it remains to be seen which ones will win consensus to be included. The ultimate question, however, remains the same: will the resulting agreement suffice to stem the planet’s mounting plastic tide?
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This document has been developed within the framework of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) project ID: 9771 on Global Best Practices on Emerging Chemical Policy Issues of Concern under the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM). This project is funded by the GEF, implemented by UNEP, and executed by the SAICM Secretariat. The International Institute for Sustainable Development acknowledges the financial contribution of the GEF to the development of this policy brief.
This Policy Brief is the first in a series featuring cross-cutting topics relating to the sound management of chemicals and waste. It was written by Keith Ripley, Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB) team leader and writer. The series editor is Elena Kosolapova, Senior Policy Advisor, Tracking Progress Program, IISD.