UNEP’s talks in Paris take center stage in the global plastic debate

The plastics industry is really damaging to our environment.

UNEP’s talks in Paris take center stage in the global plastic debate
Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme greets Philippe Franc, Permanent Delegate of France to the UNESCO, during the opening of the second session of negotiations around a future treaty on tackling plastic pollution at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, France, May 29, 2023. Reuters/Stephanie Lecocq

The backstory: The plastics industry is really damaging to our environment, creating tons of waste and chemical byproducts, with a lot of that ending up in the ocean, the air and even in our bodies. Last year, the UN proved it meant business when tackling the plastic problem in our world. A historic resolution was passed by all the member states to form a global agreement that has some serious teeth. It would cover every single aspect of the plastic lifecycle, from production to disposal and everything in between.

So, it formed the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) to work out all the details of this internationally legally-binding deal. Since then, the INC has been hard at work crafting this agreement that will have serious legal power to combat the plastic menace, especially in our precious marine environment. It aims to put this plan into action by 2024. Some people were going absolutely nuts over this decision, calling it ambitious, revolutionary and downright historic.

More recently: Earlier this month, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) dropped a little sneak peek of what the future could look like when it comes to dealing with plastic. The group aims to move toward a more circular approach to plastic use. But, according to the report, shifting away from plastic and setting up better recycling systems could cost us a whopping US$65 billion every year. That's a hefty price tag. But, it also pointed out that, overall, this investment is less than the projected spending of US$113 billion per year if nothing changes in the industry.

UNEP said that if we step up our game, use existing technologies and make policy changes and market adjustments, we could actually slash plastic pollution globally by a jaw-dropping 80% by 2040.

But, some environmental groups aren't exactly thrilled with the report and said it's too focused on waste management and not holding the plastics and petrochemicals industry accountable. In response, UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen said to Reuters this perspective is overlooking the report’s focus on completely redesigning packaging in the first place, which would greatly reduce our plastic consumption.

The development: There's a showdown happening in Paris right now, and it's all about plastics. But there’s an ongoing debate between countries and companies on the best solutions to pollution and how rules should be enforced.

Now, on one side, you've got the plastic limiters. They basically say, "Hey, let's cut back on producing plastic and focus on reusing the plastic that’s already out there for as long as we can." Some also think we should ban certain types of plastic and chemicals entirely. On the other hand, you've got the petrochemical industry (the folks who make plastic from oil) and other countries that make and export a ton of plastic. They want to focus more on managing plastic waste and stepping up recycling efforts.

One of the participants in this session of talks is a coalition of 57 countries called the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution, and it’s dead serious about tackling the plastic problem. It wants to crack down on harmful chemicals and ban pesky plastic products that are hard to recycle and end up wrecking our environment. The US and China are not members of the coalition. But the US has said it shares its goals, although it would prefer that nations be able to form their own plans, kind of like in the Paris climate agreement.

The US and UNEP are also planning to announce funding this week for developing countries to kickstart their own plans to tackle plastic pollution right away.

Key comments:

“This will be the first real draft text of the international legally binding agreement and getting things added after that becomes really, really difficult,” said Anja Brandon of the Ocean Conservancy, a Washington, DC-based environmental advocacy organization. “So this becomes the basis on which all other conversations and negotiations move forward.”

"We have a responsibility to protect human health in our environment from the most harmful polymers and chemicals of concern through the treaty," said Rwanda's environment minister, Jeanne d'Arc Mujawamariya, who is the co-chair of the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution.

“Without a common international regulatory framework, we will not be able to address the global and increasing challenge of plastic pollution,” said Switzerland in its position statement last year.