The push for a global treaty on plastic waste seems to be gaining momentum, with 30 countries endorsing an agreement at a United Nations conference and some plastics industry leaders echoing that call.
A U.N. ministerial conference on marine litter and plastics pollution ended Sept. 2 in Geneva, with diplomats in a video briefing saying they expected serious negotiations to begin in February, at the next meeting of the U.N. Environment Assembly.
Some industry groups also said they supported a treaty.
The American Chemistry Council and the International Council of Chemical Associations issued a five-point plan on Sept. 1 calling for a global agreement, saying it could help build more waste collection infrastructure worldwide and boost the reuse of plastics.
"This is a global challenge requiring a global solution," said LyondellBasell Industries CEO Bob Patel, in the statement. "With support from the U.N., we can develop a global framework to help us solve this critical issue."
In a video interview distributed by ACC, Jim Fitterling, chairman and CEO of Dow Inc. and the chair of ACC’s board, said a plastics treaty could move discussions toward solutions and compared it to climate talks.
"I think a global agreement would elevate the issue, much like we're talking about with CO2 emissions," Fitterling said. "It creates dialogue around the solutions."
Some plastics companies and industry associations have previously endorsed a global plastics treaty, although there are differences among countries, industry and environmental groups over the specifics of any potential agreement.
Some countries made formal proposals at the Geneva conference that the treaty be legally binding, but it's not clear how widespread that position is. Diplomats from 140 countries participated in the U.N. gathering.
Jochen Flasbarth, state secretary at the German Ministry for Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, told a press briefing at the end of the meeting that he sees consensus forming around a treaty.
"What I saw now during the last two years is that there is an enormous convergence of views," Flasbarth said. "I heard countries, without naming them today, who spoke at the last meeting and said a legally binding instrument is not imaginable to them. Today, I heard them also say they are ready to consider a legally binding [agreement]."
The U.N. meeting was called by Germany, Ecuador, Ghana and Vietnam to prepare for the full session of the environment assembly in February, at the headquarters of the U.N. Environment Programme in Nairobi, Kenya.
John Thompson, a U.S. diplomat, in video remarks distributed by U.N. organizers, said Washington is still developing its position on the treaty.
Flasbarth said that even after talks start, it could take several years before any treaty would come into effect. But he said he expected the next U.N. Environment Assembly to formally begin negotiations.
"I am absolutely convinced this will be successful at the next UNEA," he said.
Oliver Boachie, special adviser to the government of Ghana, said at the press conference that while some countries are calling for a binding agreement, the broader ministerial statement coming from the Sept. 1-2 meeting is "a little silent" on that question.
He said at this point, diplomats want to build support for starting the negotiations.
"For us, there was no illusion at the beginning that everything was going to be a piece of cake," he said.
Flasbarth said beyond the 30 countries that have already signed on to the ministerial statement, about 50 more indicated they plan to. A statement from the WWF International at the conference said 119 countries are endorsing a treaty in some form and it said it saw growing momentum.
"This could finally start to stem the flow of destruction that plastic pollution is having on the environment and people," WWF said.