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Global plastics treaty: Countries with 'nothing to lose' delayed progress

In a critical stage of the global plastics treaty negotiations, known as INC-3, a significant setback occurred due to the actions of a small group of primarily oil and plastic-producing countries. 

These countries employed stalling tactics to disrupt the progress towards creating an internationally binding legal agreement aimed at tackling the growing crisis of plastic pollution.

Zero Draft

The meeting took place at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. As the negotiations neared their conclusion, instead of finalizing a mandate to draft the plastics treaty, the Member States decided to revise the Zero Draft text. 

This text, which was initially intended as a foundation for discussions, became overly lengthy and complicated during the negotiations, making further progress even more challenging.

Everything to lose

Ana Rocha, the Global Plastics Policy Director of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), expressed disappointment in the negotiations. 

“These negotiations have so far failed to deliver on their promise laid out in the agreed upon mandate to advance a strong, binding plastics treaty that the world desperately needs,” said Rocha.

“The bullies of the negotiations pushed their way through, despite the majority countries, with leadership from the African Bloc and other nations in the Global South, in support of an ambitious treaty.”

“We have only one year and two negotiating meetings left to hammer out this treaty, and we can’t afford to indulge the interests of a select few. They have nothing to lose, and we have everything to lose. Plastic is burning our planet, destroying communities, and poisoning our bodies. This treaty can’t wait.” 

Lack of structure 

The negotiations also faced criticism for lacking discipline and allowing a minority to dominate the process. 

The lack of structure resulted in failure to agree on intersessional work, which is crucial for discussing key aspects of the treaty, such as phasing out harmful chemicals and promoting reuse. This stalemate threatens to impede further progress in the next round of negotiations.

Dr. Shahriar Hossain, senior technical adviser at the Environment and Social Development Organization, called for the inclusion of civil society, academia, and scientists in dedicated working groups to ensure a more inclusive process.

Downplaying the issue

The Zero Draft, initially a balanced document, ballooned in size by the end of INC-3. Countries like Iran, the Russian Federation, and Saudi Arabia created an informal “group of like-minded countries.” This group pushed for low-ambition language and voluntary measures, diverging from the high-ambition mandate for the treaty. 

The interventions sought to shift the focus solely to waste management, downplaying the broader impacts of plastic production and disposal.

Unequal representation 

Civil society also criticized the influence of the fossil fuel and chemical industries in the negotiations. A report from the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) highlighted the significant presence of industry lobbyists, overshadowing national delegations and civil society groups. 

By contrast, frontline communities, environmental justice groups, and indigenous representatives had limited opportunities to contribute, despite their firsthand experience with the impacts of plastic pollution.

Additionally, certain Member States resisted addressing issues like plastic waste trade and market schemes, citing WTO rules and the Basel Convention, thus avoiding responsibility for the harmful effects of waste colonialism.

Just Transition 

Despite these challenges, countries like Angola, Fiji, Kenya, and others from the Africa region and the Pacific Island Developing States (PSIDS) demonstrated strong commitment towards a plastics treaty that prioritizes human rights and environmental justice. 

The International Alliance of Waste Pickers (IAWP) also played a prominent role, highlighting the importance of a Just Transition in the treaty.

Holding the planet hostage

“Member States in the room have the moral obligation to prioritize planetary boundaries, human rights and just transition for fenceline communities and waste pickers,” said Merrisa Naidoo, Plastics Campaigner at GAIA Africa. 

“A handful of countries must not hold the planet hostage and prevent an ambitious treaty addressing the full life cycle of plastics, which starts at raw material extraction.”

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