Global plastic pollution treaty in progress in Kenya

On Monday, reps from around 150 countries and others came together in Nairobi, Kenya, to continue working out an international plastic pollution treaty.

Global plastic pollution treaty in progress in Kenya
Climate activists participate in a protest demanding a reduction in global plastic production during the Break Free From Plastic Movement March ahead of the third Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3) in Nairobi, Kenya, November 11, 2023. REUTERS/Monicah Mwangi

The backstory: According to the UN, about 430 million tons of plastic are produced annually, with two-thirds of that generated for short-term or single-use. That number will triple by 2060 if the rate we’re going at doesn’t change. And every year, about 400 million metric tons of plastic are dumped into landfills and bodies of water all over the world. 

Over the past few years, scientists have been raising the alarm when it comes to how this plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces into microplastics. These microplastics have traveled through water into pretty much every part of the environment, causing potential health issues to humans as they build up in our bodies.

More recently: In March 2022, the world officially said it was time to address the out-of-control plastic pollution problem. The UN decided to work on a legally binding agreement to limit this plastic production and waste problem. Two months ago, it released a “zero draft” to start the negotiations on this global plastics treaty. Oil-producing countries and gas/oil companies have a big stake in this deal because plastic comes from fossil fuels. 

Since negotiations started, there have been some roadblocks in moving this deal forward. There have been two meetings so far to hash everything out. During the last negotiating meeting in Paris, talks completely stalled out for a couple of days. Some countries, led by Norway and Rwanda, are pushing to end plastic pollution by 2040 by squashing production and limiting some materials used in the plastic-making process. Other countries with big oil-related industries, like Saudi Arabia, Russia and China, are trying to redirect the focus of the agreement onto waste management and recycling initiatives.

The development: On Monday, reps from around 150 countries, environmentalists, human rights activists, public health advocates, oil and gas companies and others came together in Nairobi, Kenya, to continue working out an international plastic pollution treaty. This is the third of five meetings to negotiate this agreement by the end of next year – at least, that’s the goal. 

Kenya is a global leader in cutting down plastic pollution after banning the production and sale of single-use plastic bags and other single-use plastic products within the past decade. At the start of this week’s negotiating talks, Kenyan President William Ruto urged all attendees to work on making real progress, reminding everyone that there would only be two more meetings after this one. By the end of the fifth meeting, there’s supposed to be a first draft agreement that lays out commitments to reducing the plastic problem and a financing plan for putting these commitments into place.

Key comments:

“The urgency of addressing plastic pollution cannot be overstated,” said Gustavo Adolfo Meza-Cuadra Velasquez, chair of the negotiating committee at the UN Environment Programme in Nairobi. “To bring a difference at the scale required, we must work collectively.”

“We need to reduce the amount of plastics produced and eliminate single-use and short-lived plastic products,” said Executive Secretary of the International Negotiating Committee (INC) Secretariat, Jyoti Mathur-Filipp. “We also need to transform our ‘throwaway economy’ to a ‘reuse economy,’ where reusing plastic products makes more economic sense than throwing them away. It is important to switch to non-plastic substitutes and plastic alternatives which do not have the potential for negative environmental and social impacts. This all must come before recycling, which only tackles the end of life of plastic rather than the root cause of pollution.”

"We must change the way we consume, the way we produce and how we dispose our waste," said Kenyan President William Ruto. "Change is inevitable. This instrument that we are working on is the first domino in that change. Let us bring it home."