Plastics industry groups and companies are supporting calls for a new global agreement on plastics pollution, but there are some sharp lines forming around the shape of any potential treaty.
Dow Inc., for example, said it backs such a treaty and says it should allow flexibility in how countries implement it, while others are pushing for more prescriptive measures that would limit new plastics production or use.
Those lines were on display at a March 31 session of the online GlobalChem regulatory conference organized by the American Chemistry Council, where a panel looked in detail at treaty talks getting underway in the United Nations.
Mike Witt, Dow's corporate director of environment, health and safety and sustainability, said a global treaty could help eliminate plastics leakage into the oceans and create momentum for better plastic product design and more recycling and reuse.
But he also told the event that the industry favors a flexible approach in implementation.
"In terms of governance, our industry favors a hybrid model focused on setting a clear global commitment using harmonized definitions," he said. "At the same time such an agreement needs to leave flexibility to the parties on really how to achieve the objectives based on local circumstances."
Some industry groups have publicly come out in support of a treaty, including ACC, the World Plastics Council and the International Council of Chemical Associations.
But there are other groups and countries pushing a more prescriptive approach. Next year could be key in setting the direction of the treaty, said Chever Voltmer, plastics initiative director with Ocean Conservancy.
The United Nations Environment Assembly decided in an online meeting in March to move ahead with global treaty talks. But because of the limitations in meeting remotely during a pandemic, it put off detailed discussions until the next in-person assembly meeting, planned for early 2022 in Kenya.
"There are groups that have proposed that an international agreement should limit the production and use, or the trade of some plastics, some resins or some additives," she said. "There's talk of new moratoriums on chemical facilities or much broader use of product bans."
What policymakers will be looking for, she said, is how quickly progress can be made on making plastics more circular and address problems like a global plastic recycling rate of 9 percent and the impact of low virgin resin prices on recycling.
If they don't see enough progress, Voltmer told the event that she believes governments could decide to focus more on reducing plastic use.
"This is probably not something this audience wants to hear, but I really do think that the success or lack thereof in the near term of proving the case for circular solutions will determine the extent to which reduction becomes the policymakers' strategy of choice," she said.
One big unanswered question is how to finance collection of plastic waste, she said. And she cautioned against putting too much focus on chemical recycling because it doesn't by itself solve collection problems and raises climate and environmental justice concerns.
"Industry support for things like extended producer responsibility, or EPR, will determine where policymakers fall on the spectrum," Voltmer said. "I'm really calling on industry here to demonstrate leadership and ambition in tackling some of these major systemic challenges on financing, funding and recyclability."
But Witt also said policymakers need to consider the ways plastics help fight climate change and help the world reach the U.N.'s climate and poverty goals.
"Plastic products should be valued for their contributions toward achieving some of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and especially towards a transition to a carbon neutral world," Witt said. "We need to take a holistic policy approach."
He also urged the industry to more widely adopt the voluntary Operation Clean Sweep programs it's developed for pellet containment from factories.