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The international community has convened in Nairobi last week for a pivotal round of talks in an attempt to formulate the first global treaty against plastic pollution. The UN’s challenge of crafting such a treaty to stem the tide of plastic waste is underscored by the current annual production of about 400 million metric tons of plastic, with less than 10% being recycled.
The discussions are anchored around a "zero draft" document, presenting a range of policies and actions, as reported by Reuters. A key contention is whether to cap plastic production or focus on waste management. The European Union, Japan, Canada, and Kenya advocate for a robust treaty with binding provisions to reduce virgin plastic production and eliminate harmful variants like PVC. In contrast, major plastic producers and oil-exporting nations, led by Saudi Arabia, argue for a focus on recycling, championing the concept of "circularity" in plastic use.
Saudi Arabia, in its submission, pinpointed inefficient waste management as the root cause of plastic pollution. This perspective is not without its merits given that, as noted by ING, only around 8% of plastic is recycled in Europe at present, despite the supposed appetite of the region to lead on sustainability initiatives. Meanwhile, the United States, initially favoring a treaty based on national plans, has revised its stance and now supports globally agreed goals for reducing plastic pollution, seeking a balance between meaningful action and feasibility.
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Adding complexity to the negotiations, Saudi Arabia recently launched the Global Coalition for Plastics Sustainability, including nations like Russia, Iran, China and Bahrain. This coalition aims to steer the treaty towards waste management rather than production controls. For countries which rely on fossil fuel exports to drive their economy, the potential curb of virgin plastics production poses a real threat to their domestic energy industries. Any unilateral resolutions from this week’s talks would have to pacify all of these competing interests and priorities.
Plastic consumption has quadrupled over the past 30 years according to the OECD, driven largely by packaging and consumer products. Moreover, despite the impression given by growing awareness and initiatives, virgin plastic demand and usage are still increasing. The recycling technology, while improving, still faces significant challenges. Advanced recycling methods, such as breaking down plastics at the molecular level, offer hope but are yet to become mainstream.
Major corporations like Nestlé and Kraft Heinz are taking significant steps to reduce virgin plastic use, exploring sustainable alternatives and increasing recyclability. Nestlé has reduced its use of virgin plastic in packaging by over 10% since 2018 and looks set to achieve its goal of cutting use by a third by 2025. Kraft Heinz, meanwhile, has committed to reducing its reliance on virgin plastics in packaging by 20% by 2030, measured against 2021 levels. These efforts reflect a growing trend among businesses to address plastic waste and satisfy increasing consumer awareness of the issue.
The complexity of the plastics supply chain, both now and in the future, is easy to overlook. For example, the energy required to manufacture plastics is the largest polluting aspect of the process. However, using green energy resources to reduce the carbon footprint of plastic production is expensive and, at present, often makes products which rely on green-produced plastic less competitive in the consumer market. Indeed, global plastic production and any reforms to it have to be viewed within the wider context of green energy transition and the costs associated with it.
The importance of affordability is crucial within plastics. After all, the material became so ubiquitous not only because of being lightweight, strong and waterproof, but also because it is cheap. While there can be some variation depending on the prices of upstream fossil fuels, recycled plastics at present can cost between 20-50% more than virgin plastics. Without this gulf being reduced or even overturned, the economic viability of choosing recycled plastics over virgin materials will continue to challenge manufacturers and consumers alike.
Narratives about plastic production, consumption and pollution are often reduced to binary assessments of the material. Plastic will continue to be vital throughout numerous industries in the coming years, so the talks in Kenya this week present an interesting opportunity for transnational coordination on the management of plastic use and reuse over the next decade.
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