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Intergovernmental Committee on Plastics ends without major progress in Kenya

29 November, 2023 | Ricardo Changala

With the presence of almost 2,000 delegates from 161 UN member countries, as well as hundreds of observer organizations, technicians and scientists, but without much progress, the third meeting of the Intergovernmental Treaty Negotiating Committee (INC) culminated in Nairobi, Kenya, on November 19.

According to data from the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA), plastic production soared from 2 million tons in 1950 to 348 million tons in 2017, becoming a global industry valued at 522,600 million dollars and is expected to double its capacity by 2040.

The impacts of plastic production and the pollution it causes have an impact on the triple planetary crisis of climate change, loss of nature and pollution. Plastics can harm human health, potentially affecting fertility, hormonal, metabolic and neurological activity, and burning plastics outdoors contributes to air pollution.

Some data turn out to be particularly alarming:

  • By 2050, greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production, use and disposal of plastic will account for 15 percent of allowable emissions, with the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C (34.7°F).
  • More than 800 marine and coastal species are affected by this pollution through ingestion, entanglement and other hazards.
  • About 11 million tons of plastic waste end up in the oceans annually. This figure could triple by 2040.

According to the UNEA, the shift towards a circular economy can reduce the volume of plastics entering the oceans by more than 80 percent by 2040; reduce the production of virgin plastic by 55 percent; save governments $70 billion by 2040; reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent; and create 700,000 additional jobs, mainly in the global south.

In the 2022 agreements, the creation of an intergovernmental negotiating committee had been established to elaborate a legally binding international instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment, which should continue, among other aspects, clauses that allow:

  • Promote sustainable production and consumption of plastics through, inter alia, product design and environmentally sound waste management, including through resource management efficiency and circular economy approaches;
  • Develop, implement and update national action plans that reflect the initiatives promoted by the countries to contribute to the objectives of the instrument; Promote national action plans to work on the prevention, reduction and elimination of plastic pollution and support regional and international cooperation. [1]

Although there were many expectations, the reality is that, after a week of negotiations, not much progress has been achieved in relation to previous sessions. It has not even been possible to validate the zero document that was circulated at the meeting, so the following sessions will not start from an already agreed negotiation basis. Clearly there are very different visions between the oil producing countries and the others, which makes it very difficult to reach agreements, which, according to the established rules, can only be achieved by consensus.

Observing the debates, it seems that the vast majority of countries are willing to adopt binding international standards and not just voluntary ones, and many even want bans on harmful and unnecessary plastics to be included.

It should be borne in mind that almost half of plastic is dedicated to packaging, while the other half is distributed in the construction, automotive, electronics or agricultural sectors, among others. Currently, about 9% of what is produced is recycled, 12% is burned and the rest is thrown in landfills polluting Mother Earth.

The scientific community is requesting that the future international instrument should establish specific, mandatory and time-bound production reduction objectives, reducing the amount of chemicals and polymers associated with the production of plastics.

[1] United Nations Environment Assembly of the United Nations Environment Programme Fifth session Nairobi (hybrid), 22 and 23 February 2021 and 28 February–2 March 2022 Resolution adopted by the United Nations Environment Assembly on 2 March 2022, UNEP/EA.5/Res.14,