UN unveils plastic treaty “zero draft”

  • Market: Petrochemicals
  • 05/09/23

The UN Environmental Programme (Unep) has released the "zero draft" of its legally-binding treaty to tackle plastic waste, including options to restrict virgin plastic production and mandate recycled content requirements.

The zero draft will be debated by participating states at the third session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3) in November.

It sets out a number of potential measures taking into account the range of opinions from the second INC (INC-2) session. These include proposed upstream restrictions on plastic production, which were more likely to be favoured by developing countries, and downstream measures focussed on circularity, design-for-recycling and waste management.

Many of the measures include options for targets to be decided unilaterally, or for states to be free to decide upon their own goals. At INC-2, the US, Saudi Arabia, India and China were reported by think-tank the International Institute for Sustainable Development's (IISD) to favour states having freedom to determine their own commitments while others — particularly developing countries — preferred strong global commitments.

In one example, the draft lays out three options for working towards a reduction of primary plastic production, feedstocks and pre-cursors. In the first option, states would be bound to work towards a set reduction of primary plastic supply within a certain time period, whereas the second option would give states freedom to develop their own reduction targets. A third option would see states bound to "manage and reduce" primary plastic production without a set reduction target.

In all cases the targets are still to-be-defined, although the draft recommends market and price-based measures and the removal of subsidies and other fiscal incentives as appropriate actions for states to take.

Proposed measures to set binding recycled content requirements for plastic products are likely to be particularly welcomed by the recycling industry. The draft refers to undefined "general and sectoral targets" for "minimum percentages of safe and environmentally sound post-consumer recycled plastic" in plastic products, with two options that appear to allow for unilateral and national implementation.

But the section relating to cross-border movements of plastic waste may be less welcomed within the industry. It proposes a strict series of controls to ensure the composition of the waste and the importing states' consent to manage the waste in an environmentally-sound manner, which aligns at least partly with the existing Basel Convention, but could increase the cost and complexity of waste movements. This could be seen as contrary to Unep's recommendations, published in May, that trade in plastic waste should be facilitated "to move waste to areas with surplus recycling capacity".

The draft makes no specific mention of different recycling technologies such as chemical recycling, including in its section referring to "plastics and plastic products with lower greenhouse gas (GHG) life cycle emissions" which gives bioplastics and bio-degradable plastics as the only examples. The May Unep report was supportive of chemical recycling, calling upon polymer and chemical producers to continue investing in the technology and suggesting that legislators should look at incentives to increase chemical conversion capacity for difficult-to-recycle plastics.

Other proposed measures refer to enforcing or encouraging states to enact extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes, design-for-recycling guidelines, better waste-management practices and bans or restrictions on "problematic and avoidable" plastic products. The latter category includes cutlery, plates, carrier bags, straws and expanded polystyrene (EPS) food and beverage containers.

Environmental group Greenpeace said that the report includes the "necessary provisions" but called upon governments to "go much further and negotiate an ambitious treaty" in future discussions.


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