As the first round of negotiations toward a global plastics treaty wrapped up Dec. 2 at a United Nations conference in Uruguay, it's clear that any agreement will likely substantially reshape the plastics industry.
The weeklong negotiations are only the first of five sessions planned over the next two years, and the thousand-plus delegates from countries, industry and civil society heard many ideas. Those included calls from several dozen countries and about 80 businesses to limit virgin resin production, as well as demands for much more public information about chemicals and additives in plastics.
One plastics delegate to the Uruguay meeting said at a Nov. 29 public forum at the talks that the industry is changing and a treaty can be a map for rethinking plastics production as well as use.
"Most plastics come from fossil fuels; we're looking to diversify that," said Stewart Harris, senior director of global plastics policy at the American Chemistry Council in Washington. "The one thing that we all lack now is a North Star. We each have our own. But the global agreement provides the opportunity for governments to set that target, that North Star, toward which we can all focus our efforts."
The specifics of any such North Star are yet to be decided, with many differences emerging.
Some countries and groups favored allowing more flexibility in national action plans that the countries would develop, akin to the approach in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, while others favored stronger mandates and said the climate treaty approach hasn't worked because nations have too much flexibility.
As well, there were flashpoints around whether the treaty should focus on limiting plastics in the environment after it has been used, or take stronger steps upstream toward limiting plastics production.
Governments from several dozen countries, including those home to large plastics sectors like Germany and South Korea, said the treaty had to include caps on virgin plastics production. Some large consumer product brands that are big buyers of plastic packaging also publicly endorsed that.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, in a Dec. 2 tweet, urged treaty delegates to limit plastic production.
"Plastics are fossil fuels in another form & pose a serious threat to human rights, the climate and biodiversity," Guterres wrote. "As negotiations towards an agreement to beat plastic pollution continue, I call on countries to look beyond waste and turn off the tap on plastic."
ACC, however, in a Dec. 2 statement, "strongly cautioned" that limiting plastics production would hurt efforts to reduce climate change and sustain a growing global population.
"Sustainable development relies on plastics for wind turbines, solar panels, lightweight electric vehicles, building insulation, clean water and preventing food waste," ACC said. "Additionally, production caps wouldn't address plastics leakage for the 3 billion people that lack access to adequate waste management."