It's hard to sum up a week spent among nearly 2,000 diplomats and observers at the plastics treaty talks in Kenya, maybe especially so for us, a media outlet focused on the business of the industry. But here's some thoughts.
The final shape of the treaty is far from clear, but it was apparent that the week-plus of meetings at United Nations offices in Nairobi did not end well.
Not as much progress was made as had been hoped, owing to continuing disagreements between countries whose economies are heavily linked to fossil fuels and who want the agreement to focus on end-of-pipe waste management, and other nations that want a broader treaty.
Importantly, the delegates could not come to consensus on the scope of technical talks, or intersessionals, before the next negotiations in Canada in April.
That sounds dry, but they would have moved things forward in key ways. Now countries and participants will be left trying to organize informal consultations.
But even with those challenges, and the final shape of a treaty uncertain, I think it's clear that the pact will likely have a significant impact on industry long-term.
It makes me think about a question I got from a reader in a large plastic packaging company. A consultant they hired told them to pay attention to the treaty, but they weren't sure how much weight to attach to it.
I said yes, based on attending two of these negotiating sessions so far, you should attach weight to it.
It could take a few years for the impact to filter down but I compare it to the various global climate agreements governments have reached over the last three decades.
Those agreements may seem far removed, but they're showing up in major policies and laws to decarbonize economies. The plastics treaty will do the same, but probably much faster.
Many of us feel the climate agreements are not moving quickly enough, and people will argue about whether the plastics treaty could suffer the same fate.
One experienced observer from an environmental group said at an opening day news conference that he feared the same diplomatic compromises that have weakened global climate deals for 30 years would be repeated in the plastics treaty.
But as far as impacts, consider that in the climate talks, about 70,000 people are headed to a twoweek climate confab — a conference of parties as they're called — in Dubai starting Nov. 30.
Similar but smaller meetings will follow the plastics treaty, which will likely set up a plastics treaty secretariat within the U.N. to oversee implementation. Countries will likely be expected to come up with national plans to meet the treaty's goals.
So, what might be some of the impacts?
At a bare minimum, it means more attention to recycling and waste management.
Treaty provisions setting targets for recycled content, reusable packaging or extended responsibility programs — which require companies to pay to support end-of-life management of plastics — will filter down and elevate those topics in national, state and local governments.
It's also going to, at a minimum, increase scrutiny and scientific research around the potential health impacts of the additives and chemical components used in plastics. Think of the worries over flame retardants or fluorinated compounds.
In response to public concerns over transparency at each of the three rounds of treaty talks thus far, the plastics industry is developing a public database of additives.
Similarly, academics and NGOs are developing their own public database of additives and are readying detailed policy proposals.
Related to that, many countries said in their public comments that they want the treaty to develop lists of chemicals of concern in plastics as well as problematic plastics that are hard to recycle, to target for additional regulation.
There were many other key topics, including whether the treaty can help people recycling plastic on the streets, the "wastepickers" as they call themselves.
Globally, they're estimated to collect about 60 percent of the plastics that are recycled, much of it in developing countries.
As well, production caps on plastic, a hot button topic, are on the agenda.
Groups representing different plastics sectors like bioplastics, vinyl and expanded polystyrene were there, as well as those representing the industry overall.
For the plastics industry, one wrinkle worth watching in the treaty's direction could come from major consumer product companies, who have organized into their own coalition pushing for a more ambitious treaty than the plastics industry wants. It will be interesting to see if that winds up creating a business push for governments to go broader.
In some ways, what the consumer brands want is more in line with some of the environmental groups.
As well, researchers who have organized the Scientists Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty were there, offering themselves and their research to diplomats who have questions.
In a lot of ways — and here's a metaphor for an industry audience — the treaty is like a trade show around plastics in the environment, but with a much wider range of voices than at a typical industry event.
Beyond the formal negotiating sessions, the meeting included many panels both at the U.N. offices and organized off site on topics such as how the treaty can help fenceline communities facing pollution from living near petrochemical plants. The mayor of New Orleans came to Kenya to speak at one such event.
If readers were hoping for a clear prediction from me on where the talks were going, I'll have to disappoint.
In my week in Nairobi, I saw a lot of seriousness among participants. Plastics have a lot of benefits to society and will continue to play a vital role, but they are not at all circular materials.
We can't recycle many of them effectively now. Over time, we need to find a way to sever their raw materials from fossil fuels. We need more information on health impacts.
And we need to deal with consequences of the huge, too often unmanaged, growth in plastics production.
Maybe the best thing to say is that attention now turns to the fourth round of talks in Ottawa, Ontario, in April, where it seems like real progress will have to be made if there's any hope of a substantive agreement finishing by the end of 2024, at the last planned negotiating session in South Korea.
Steve Toloken is Plastics News' assistant managing editor. Follow him on Twitter @PNSteve_Toloken.