The UN Plastics Pollution Treaty

With delegates currently meeting in Uruguay to discuss the UN Plastics Pollution Treaty, Valpak Policy Researcher, Henry Smith outlines the aims of the Treaty, why industry collaboration is key, and the importance of involving the UK's waste and resources sector in its development.

In March this year, representatives from UN member states agreed to devise an international legally binding treaty to end plastic pollution.

Work on this treaty begins today (28 November), when delegates are meeting for four days in Uruguay. A treaty is unlikely to be signed and sealed in that time frame – with the UN setting 2024 as its official target date for completion – but even so, to reach such an agreement between stakeholders from across the international community would represent a landmark achievement. But what are the likely impacts on, and opportunities for, the resources and waste sector when delegates start to meet?

International effort to eliminate plastic pollution

The case for a major international effort to eliminate plastic pollution is growing day by day.  The scale of plastic pollution is now being widely and regularly reported in both industry and mainstream media outlets. The harmful impacts of this mismanaged waste on the natural environment are now well established, whilst the potential negative impacts on human health are a growing cause for concern for many. Global plastic production is increasing annually, and many countries do not have adequate infrastructure in place to effectively manage this plastic when it becomes waste.

Industry collaboration is needed

But far from representing a crusade against the plastics industry, the Treaty negotiations represent a genuine opportunity for the industry to collaborate on an approach that best serves everyone. Afterall, plastic waste continuing to arise in the natural environment is of use to no one, least of all an industry that directly benefits from the valorisation of this material – especially with the recent proliferation of minimum recycled content targets.  The UN forum being convened to negotiate this Treaty aims to pull together a wide array of expertise to develop policies covering the full lifecycle of plastics. Further, the Treaty is not aimed at devising a one-size-fits-all, silver bullet solution to plastic pollution; instead aiming to support measures that represent best-practice for the specific challenges nations struggling with plastic pollution find themselves confronting. This includes the establishment of effective recycling and/or reuse systems, product specifications, technological solutions, and innovative scientific research.

Aims of the Treaty and solutions

Amongst the aims of key proponents of the Treaty is that it will be legally binding, address the full life cycle of plastics, provide harmonisation of standards, and recognise the contribution of informal workers in the waste sector. Promoting extended producer responsibility (EPR) reforms, and the establishment of deposit return schemes (DRS) for drinks containers, seem to be amongst the clearest and most effective ways of achieving these ambitions. Systems of EPR and DRS are spreading in some parts of the world  – with deposit return schemes in Europe often achieving return rates in excess of 90%, and EPR providing pivotal funding to support national recycling infrastructure – but are yet to become common practice everywhere. This is an especially acute problem when you consider that those countries more vulnerable to the environmental damage mismanaged plastics are contributing to, are also less likely to have these kinds of systems in place.

Importance of UK waste and resources sector involvement

As such, professional and responsible industry players have much to give to the proceedings of the Treaty, and much to gain from its establishment. Some may question the capacity of the UK’s waste and resources sector to be involved in this Treaty development when the upcoming reforms to change the way in which the UK manages packaging waste are contested, and its future is uncertain. However, the UK’s waste and resources sector is particularly well placed in this regard, especially as with the ongoing industry involvement in the development of extended producer responsibility for packaging waste, and the deposit return scheme for drinks containers, the sector has become especially well versed in the challenges faced in bringing effective solutions from concept to reality. It was because of industry involvement that the extended producer responsibility reforms in the UK evolved into the leaner, more fit-for-purpose system now in development. It is industry that knows the effects of the UK’s Plastic Packaging Tax on the market for recycled plastic material, and the wider effects this may have had on plastic recycling. And so far, it has been industry expertise pioneering the shift away from single-use linear consumption models to the circular reuse systems of the kind the Treaty aims to make the norm.

A great opportunity to improve the environment

Simply getting as far as the Treaty being negotiated, never mind agreed upon, is a huge achievement and a testament to the widespread appetite for, and drive toward, environmental improvement. Getting the Treaty over the line is going to require even more effort and expertise on the part of NGOs, states, civil society, and industry players for whom the Treaty is not a challenge but a great opportunity.