Nairobi, Kenya — Plastics treaty talks reopened Nov. 13 under what one experienced observer called an "uneasy truce," as differences present in earlier rounds resurfaced but countries seemed to want to sidestep and move ahead.
In an opening public session at United Nations offices in Kenya, nations and regional blocs outlined their positions and made plans to move into smaller work groups over the next seven days to hash out details.
The goal seemed to be to keep the talks moving and avoid a repeat of the last round in Paris in May, when a group of oil-producing states and others staged a parliamentary revolt that effectively shut down negotiations for two of the five days of the session.
"We are entering these negotiations in an uneasy truce," said Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law in Washington, in an opening day press conference organized by several nongovernmental organizations.
"We saw in Paris that despite early momentum in this process, there were extraordinary efforts to derail it and slow it down," he said. "We see those efforts reemerging here early and actively."
Iran, one of the countries that led the parliamentary revolt in Paris, announced a new coalition with several other oil-producing nations, a development that prompted some to wonder whether it foreshadowed a repeat of Paris.
The World Wildlife Fund, which has a team of delegates at the talks, said in a Nov. 14 analysis of the first day of debate that Iran’s announcement of the Global Coalition for Plastics Sustainability was an attempt to water down a potential treaty with delay tactics.
But there were signs that other proposals in the first draft of the treaty developed by treaty organizers could be getting more support.
Many countries, for example, said in their opening statements that they wanted the agreement to address health questions around chemicals used in making plastics and to take steps to reduce "problematic" plastic products, usually seen as those that are hard to recycle.
As well, the head of the U.N. committee organizing the talks told reporters at a briefing that he saw broad consensus for major provisions to improve waste management.
And countries universally said they supported a treaty to help them better manage plastic waste and prevent plastic from getting into the environment, even if they continued to disagree on how ambitious any treaty should be.
WWF suggested the Iranian coalition was in a minority, with the “overwhelmingly majority” of countries supporting the treaty and speaking favorably of binding elements like phasing down “problematic” plastics or chemicals of concern and having requirements on plastic product design and performance toward circularity.
WWF said that by examining official positions and statements, the treaty is supported by about 140 of the roughly 170 countries there.
It also pointed to what it said were positive moves in opening statements from the United States, Brazil and South Africa toward a stronger treaty.
A U.S. representative told the plenary session that it is “prepared to support meaningful and feasible universal obligations for parties to address plastic pollution throughout the life cycle of plastics” and said it would detail those in talks with others.
Eirik Lindebjerg, WWF’s head of global plastic policy, said in a statement that more than 100 countries supported the initial draft text and wanted to start detailed negotiations.
“Are we seeing attempts by those with large fossil fuel and plastic production interests to derail, delay and backtrack on decisions already made? Yes,” he said. “Do we think they will succeed? Unlikely.”
Some ideas continued to be contentious. A proposal for caps on plastic production in the treaty remained a point of dispute, with Japan, India and Singapore, among others, saying they opposed it being included.
"Like others, Singapore has concerns on the option [in the draft] that calls for limits on the production of primary polymers," a Singapore representative said. "These primary polymers may not be easily substitutable at this stage, as they go on to serve many different products. Given how far upstream these are, they will have wide-ranging and unintended socioeconomic impacts."
At times the debate was nuanced. Quite a few countries voiced support for giving nations considerable flexibility in how they implement the treaty through national action plans, and some states noted the benefits of plastics to society and said it was important to have that recognized in the treaty.
Muffett said he was concerned that the countries that stalled the Paris round could do the same again by pushing to include provisions in the plastics treaty, such as consensus decision-making, that have severely weakened global climate agreements.
"One of the key reasons for the inertia and inaction that has plagued U.N. climate talks for three decades is because its decision-making processes are mired in a requirement for consensus that Saudi Arabia injected into the process," Muffett said. "Could a determined set of parties gum up these negotiations? Absolutely. But only if other members let them."