Nairobi, Kenya — As the plastic treaty talks restart Nov. 13, a lot remains unclear about what any agreement could look like.
But some industry delegates in Kenya for the negotiations hope that in its final form, it speeds up moves to new business models and away from fossil feedstocks.
Diplomats from 170 countries and hundreds of delegates from environmental groups, companies and other organizations are gathering at United Nations offices in Nairobi for what many observers are saying will be a critical seven days of talks.
What makes this session, the third round of talks, critical is that it's the first one where negotiators have detailed draft language to work over, what diplomats call a "zero draft."
Observers said it's not clear how those discussions will go, and a preliminary public session of diplomats Nov. 11 resurfaced some of the same disagreements that nearly derailed the last round in Paris in May.
But among the roughly 75 plastics industry delegates in Nairobi, the sense was the zero draft marks a new phase, as countries now work through details to try to finish the deal by the end of 2024.
"It's technically the halfway point but I think we're really just starting to see the work of governments begin in earnest," said Stewart Harris, a spokesman at the talks for the International Council of Chemical Associations. "[The meeting] becomes incredibly important because now governments have language in front of them, and so I think we can start to see a more robust exchange of views between the governments."
Tracey Campbell, executive vice president of sustainability and corporate affairs for resin maker LyondellBasell Industries, said she was "dismayed" that the zero draft that UN officials released in September listed production caps on plastic among the first items, but she said the debate will now sharpen.
"I have a much more focused perspective now that we have a zero draft," she said in a Nov. 11 interview in Nairobi. "Now that we know more about all the different stakeholder views, I think now it's time, just like in contract negotiations, it's time to get down to the nitty-gritty."
There are still major disagreements to try to work out.
Some countries and groups in the talks, including a coalition of consumer product brands, advocate for a treaty that details specific obligations around health impacts of additives in plastics and phaseouts of "problematic plastics," along with global targets for recycling systems and targets on cutting back on virgin fossil-based production. They argue that rising plastics pollution hasn't been effectively controlled.
Plastics industry groups generally favor a treaty that relies more on countries developing national plans and they highlight controlling plastic leakage as a key goal, rather than specific caps on plastic production.
But they also said they hoped a treaty would accelerate the industry's shift to a more circular business model and away fossil-based production.
As an example of that, the business group Plastics Europe in October released an industry transition plan that calls for plastics production in Europe to shift from 88 percent based on fossil feedstocks in 2021 to 35 percent fossil-based in 2050.
"Plastics Europe has done a great job identifying their roadmap to circularity," said Harris, who is also senior director of global plastics policy for the American Chemistry Council. "What we're looking for from the global plastics agreement are those signals to help other countries develop their own roadmaps based on their national conditions."
The Plastics Europe plan, which some environmentalists criticized as not being ambitious enough, includes big ramp-ups in both chemical recycling and biomass plastics to replace fossil polymers.
But it remains unclear to what degree the treaty will ultimately endorse those technologies.
Chemical recycling has proven controversial in other global forums like the Basel Convention, and some countries at the Nov. 11 preliminary session said they wanted more standards developed around bioplastics.
But Harris said in the big picture, plastic companies want the treaty to send signals from governments that these changes will be supported.
"What we'd like to see from the global plastics agreement is that it accelerates our industry's transition to a more circular economy for plastics," he said. "That will have significant impacts, both on eliminating leakage of plastic waste into the environment and also on economic development by driving new business models and by unlocking investment."
LyondellBasell's Campbell said industry comes to the talks arguing for benefits of plastics, like its use in piping and as materials to lightweight electric cars, while also seeing the treaty as part of a move away from fossil-based production.
"The underlying demand is still driven by key macro trends, which is population growth and higher standards of living and higher wealth around the world, and those things haven't changed," she said.
"There will still be growth in plastics production but I think us as an industry we can increasingly, instead of relying on fossil-based feedstocks, we can use the recycled material, we can use the pyrolysis oil [from chemical recycling] to meet the demand for those products," Campbell said.
"We can work with governments to address nuisance materials and we can deal with those from a demand perspective," Campbell said. "[Plastics] are used in light weighting vehicles, they're used in electronics, they're used in piping and infrastructure. We don't need to be producing nuisance plastics if there are better alternatives."
She said the financing of improvements in waste management will be a key part of the treaty, an area where some other groups in the talks have advocated for fees on virgin plastic.
Campbell pointed to funding from institutions like the World Bank and groups like the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, and also to the creation of extended producer responsibility programs that have "been proven to work, and where we know that the fees are going back into the investment of the infrastructure."
As another example of what the treaty could do, Harris pointed to support for recycled-content targets like the 30 percent target that ACC has endorsed in the United States. He said the treaty should let countries set the targets themselves.
"[We would like] some kind of a signal that the global agreement would work with governments or identify circularity targets, things like recycled content requirements or recycling rate targets, and not necessarily that it would be set at a global level, but that it would provide the framework and the structure to enable governments to set targets based on national circumstances," Harris said. "That's the type of demand signal that we're really looking for, to both accelerate circularity and to also capture that value of end-of-life plastics or plastic waste, so we can pull it back into the system."