Packaging, clothing fibers, construction materials, medical devices… Plastics, derived from petroleum, are everywhere. Its annual production, which has more than doubled to 460 million tonnes (Mt) in 20 years, could triple by 2060 if no action is taken.
Furthermore, two-thirds are discarded after one or a few uses, and less than 10% of plastic waste is recycled.
Trash ends up in the oceans, on sea ice, in the stomachs of birds, or even on top of mountains. Microplastics were also found in the blood, breast milk or placenta.
Faced with this threat to health and biodiversity, the UN Environment Assembly created an “Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee” (CIN) in Nairobi in 2022, tasked with drafting a “legally binding” treaty by 2024 .
After relatively technical preliminary discussions in Uruguay in November, CIN will resume its work at UNESCO headquarters in Paris from May 29 to June 2, the second of five phases of talks to reach a historic agreement on the life cycle of plastics.
balance of power
The five days of discussion will not determine a draft treaty, but the more than 1,000 delegates should outline the main lines.
These will come out of a balance of power between mainly Asian countries, which produce half the plastic, some big consumers like the United States, and the 53 countries of the “High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution”.
Led by Rwanda and Norway, the alliance includes, among others, the European Union (EU), Canada, the United Arab Emirates, and various countries in East Africa and Latin America, such as Mexico, Peru or Chile.
“Decreasing the use and production of plastics” are priorities in its roadmap, goals outrightly rejected by countries that prefer to focus on recycling, innovation and better waste management.
Avoiding controversy, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) published a report in May with the triptych “reuse, recycle and redirect” to create a “circular economy” of plastics.
According to the programme, the plan is capable of reducing abandoned waste (burned, left in nature or in illegal dumps) by 41 million tonnes (against about 78 million tonnes in 2019 according to OECD) by 2040.
“If the report talked more clearly about the ‘reduction in production’, some of the big countries would never have signed the treaty,” Diane Beaumaine-Jonette of the NGO Surfrider told AFP.
The binding nature of the treaty is also in question. The United States, for example, wants to limit the legal scope and apply it only to the main principles of the text, leaving signatories free to establish solutions in national plans, indicates a French diplomat.
Actors such as Jane Fonda or Joaquin Phoenix joined Greenpeace USA in May to ask US President Joe Biden to step up their ambitions.
One of the points of tension revolves around the distribution of effort, between richer economies that have historically polluted more and countries that do not want to jeopardize their development without financial compensation.
The plastic industry’s involvement in the process, which shifts billions of dollars and millions of jobs, worries nongovernmental organizations. Some 175, led by Greenpeace, sent a series of measures against “undue influence of petrochemical companies” to UNEP in the negotiations.
Its representatives, such as the European Union Plastics Europe, will be present at UNESCO, where not all professional, scientific or collaborative observers will be able to enter every day due to space constraints.
Host country France, which plans to ban single-use plastics by 2040, wants the summit to be a showcase for its goals.
To this end, the government is organizing a political summit with some forty environment ministers or high-level diplomats, starting on Saturday, which will present to scientists and NGOs the range of solutions proposed by the EU, which will help the world. The United States is one of the world’s leading consumers of plastic, although it has begun to reduce its use and introduce stricter legislation.