For some in the bioplastics industry, the plastics treaty talks are missing a big opportunity to support alternatives to fossil-fuel-based polymers.
Backers of the niche sector, which today only account for about 1 percent of plastics production, came to the treaty talks in Kenya to argue that negotiators are glossing over a root problem in the treaty — cutting the link between plastics and climate warming extraction of fossil fuels.
"The root cause is we're making materials out of oil, which are not degradable, and we stuff them with dangerous chemicals," said Maximillian Lackner, scientific adviser for the bioplastics trade group Go PHA. "We are here to convince delegates that bioplastics are at the core of the solution and urge for their explicit inclusion in the next version of the [treaty] draft."
But Lackner and his bioplastics colleagues appear to have work in front of them.
Environmental groups at the talks said countries were asking a lot of questions about bio-based and biodegradable plastics, with diplomats unsure how to view them and their environmental impacts.
A report from a group of Nordic nations ahead of the Kenya meeting, for example, said there was still too much uncertainty around bioplastics to include them among 15 policy options that they proposed.
But the small group of bioplastics delegates to this round of talks, held Nov. 13-19 at United Nations offices in Nairobi, said moving away from oil and other fossil-based plastics is where the agreement should go.
"If you take a step back, there is so much evidence that standard plastics give a lot of damage," Lackner said, pointing to the climate impact of using fossil fuel feedstocks, potentially toxic additives in petrochemical plastics and the creation of microplastics when they break down.
Ahead of the Kenya meeting, Go PHA told treaty organizers in a formal submission that alternatives to fossil-based plastics had been "grossly underrepresented" in earlier rounds of the talks. The group developed a treaty website and a video outlining priorities.