Delegates opening a United Nations environmental forum Feb. 28 said they've made significant progress on a plastics treaty in detailed talks leading up the event, and expect to reach agreement on a legally binding treaty in coming days.
"We're getting very close now to an agreement on a legally binding treaty or instrument to end plastics waste," said Espen Barth Eide, Norway's climate and the environment and president of the U.N. Environment Assembly, meeting Feb. 28-March 2 in Kenya.
"The idea here is to get a strong mandate from here so we can sit down and negotiate such a treaty," Eide said. "I'm quite optimistic that that's where we are heading now."
At a news conference on the first day of the UNEA meeting, he and other U.N. officials said the talks seem headed to including key parts of a joint framework from Peru and Rwanda, and backed by European Union.
That framework had been seen as the strongest of the proposals under consideration. Negotiators have been meeting for the last few days to bridge gaps between different proposals, including another from Japan.
The text of the new common language was not available and could change as countries debate in formal sessions over the next three days.
But one senior U.N. official, Inger Andersen, the head of the U.N. Environment Program, told journalists it includes language from the Peru and Rwanda proposal, which was seen as the most ambitious.
She said the text before governments now includes a legally binding treaty and includes language on financing and monitoring.
"Those are actually the kind of dimensions that negotiators were seeking to craft and that the original draft from Peru and Rwanda contained, are in fact reflected," Andersen said.
Eide told journalists that countries see the agreement as creating incentives for much more circular use of plastics, and he noted some business groups have been lobbying their national governments to support a treaty so there are stronger regulations on plastics in the environment.
"We're not after plastics as such, we're after plastics waste," Eide said. "That means that you can develop a solid economy around plastics recycling, as long as you're taking the toxics out of plastics production, that you design for recycling and that you actually develop recycling value chains."
Eide said the language that negotiators agreed on in their first discussions Feb. 28 is "a strong text that we now have addressing the life cycle."
Andersen said negotiators want to see systems with much more recycling of plastics, and she said that could include putting fees or incentives on plastics as some countries do to make it more recyclable.
"It will take a global agreement that will set some boundaries on what is acceptable in terms of packaging," she said. "We are still going to move good across the globe and they still need to be contained, and plastics will still probably play a role there."
Negotiators hope to emerge from the closing sessions of the UNEA meeting on March 2 with a general framework for the treaty, which will then guide detailed negotiations. A formal treaty could be presented at the next session of UNEA in 2024.
After that, countries would craft national implementation strategies, similar to other environmental pacts like the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.
In comments opening the formal session of the UNEA meeting, Andersen said success for a treaty should include strong financing and "a full life cycle approach stretching from extraction to production to waste."
"If we can achieve all this, we will indeed have the most important multilateral environmental deal since Paris," she said.