The third round of international negotiations on a global plastics treaty wrapped up on Sunday, 19 November in Nairobi, Kenya, after an intense week of exchange. The UN’s Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) has been meeting and discussing a global and legally binding tool to control plastic pollution, including in the marine environment, since late 2022. 

Plastic has long tarnished ecosystems, poisoned marine life and threatened human health with its chemical makeup. Globally, an estimated 11 million tonnes of plastic waste enter the environment annually, a figure only expected to increase as plastic production skyrockets to triple its 2019 levels by mid-century. 

The INC’s goals in response are clear – end global plastic pollution, protect the environment, and protect human health. However, there is no end date in sight to achieve these goals. Despite delegates dubbing the spirit of negotiations as “constructive”, there has yet to be any clear consensus on basic aspects of the treaty, such as the scope of the eventual legal instrument, clear definitions for technical terms, and how to make progress in between negotiating sessions (INC-4 is slated for April 2024 in Ottawa, Canada). 

The plastic and chemical industry’s presence was felt throughout this session. As the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) pointed out, the 143 delegates from the plastic producer lobby far outnumbered the 70 member states who attended INC-3. Constrained by plastic producing countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Egypt, Iran, Bahrain, Kuwait and China, negotiators were blocked and unable to agree on simple definitions for “polymers”, “problematic chemicals”, or even “microplastics”. This prompted a reaction from Surfrider Europe (a member of Seas At Risk) and Zero Waste France, who urged ambitious states to “stay the course towards an effective treaty” and called on the petrochemical lobby to stop interfering with otherwise fruitful discussions. 

Despite meddling by the petrochemical lobby, 140 of the 161 negotiating participants supported global, binding rules rather than national, voluntary approaches, which are often ineffective. 

The EU has positioned itself as a progressive participant in negotiations, supporting a life cycle approach to plastic pollution, from production to waste disposal. The EU also favours a global plastics treaty that addresses all sources of microplastic pollution (including plastic pellets used to create all plastics). 

Seas At Risk and its members are closely following the international negotiations and other discussions about the latest proposals for microplastics in the EU. It is crucial that ambition in Europe matches its ambition in international talks, by promoting reuse, preventing microplastic emissions and phasing out single-use packaging. Despite negotiations being lengthy and consensus-based, these INC talks could help raise global awareness, especially in multinational food, packaging and chemical giants, encouraging them to finally invest in reuse and eco-design.  

Negotiations are set to wrap up by the end of 2024.