It's hard to summarize a week spent covering the plastics treaty talks in Paris.
Speaking personally, it was one of the more intense weeks of work in my time at Plastics News.
Long days. Moving among more than 1,700 diplomats and observers. Many perspectives around the environmental and societal challenges posed by — and the advantages and benefits of — plastics.
Here's a few snapshots.
For some delegates, those societal impacts are personal.
I interviewed Yvette Arellano, the head of Fenceline Watch, which advocates for communities living along the petrochemical production zones around Houston.
Here's one of Arellano's perspectives: The growth in resin production along the U.S. Gulf Coast bound for single-use plastics means that those communities face more pollution and more health harms, all to meet our demands for single-use packaging.
Arellano said they found that enraging, that communities were seeing those impacts because of single-use materials.
I did a podcast interview with Arellano, one of nine from the event we'll be posting soon, so you can hear that perspective yourself.
I also met with industry groups there for talks, held May 29 to June 2 at United Nations offices in Paris, and did podcast interviews with them, so you can also hear their perspectives, in their words.
The industry groups were all there supporting a treaty in one form or another, seeing it as a way to improve plastics recycling and working to the goal of eliminating plastics pollution in the environment by 2040.
Groups like the American Chemistry Council and the Plastics Industry Association were on hand, talking about the agreement's role in making plastics more circular, improving recycling and their desire for the treaty to better recognize the benefits of plastics.
For some plastics companies, talk within the treaty about putting some form of cap on virgin resin production was emerging as a red line.
It's hard to see how a U.N. treaty could force any country to do that if an individual nation didn't want to limit plastic production.
But it was clear there's momentum for limits on fossil-based plastics, and not just from environmentalists.
I talked with Ed Shepherd, a Unilever manager who was also speaking on behalf of the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty.
In a podcast, he suggested the treaty will have to address upstream plastics production.
As Unilever sees it, the unchecked growth in virgin resin production — unchecked is the company's word — makes it more difficult to economically use more recycled content (and get greenhouse gas reduction benefits), or to shift to reuse and refill models for packaging.
"It's going to be critical that an element of the treaty seeks to address this upstream issue," Shepherd said. "We know we cannot recycle our way out of this problem. We know we need to have measures that reduce plastic production and use, particularly fossil-based virgin and particularly for applications and uses that are more likely to leak into the environment."
I spoke with individual plastics sectors at the talks in Paris, like groups representing the flexible plastic packaging supply chain, makers of expanded polystyrene foam and plastic recyclers.
The flexibles sector had some detailed proposals calling for the treaty to have mandatory design for recyclability and extended producer responsibility provisions.
As the head of Ceflex, a European group working on flexible packaging circularity told me, EPR will be crucial to effectively recycle more of the thin-film flexibles, including plastics, because of the economic challenges.
"To make it work, you need EPR because it's not realistic to expect to collect, sort and recycle these materials without some form of subsidization," said Ceflex head Graham Houlder.
Which I think gets to some of the rethink going on within industry groups and the kinds of policies that the treaty seems likely to encourage.
I caught up with Kate Bailey, the chief policy officer for the Association of Plastic Recyclers, who similarly sees the treaty talks accelerating what's underway in the United States and worldwide around plastics laws like recycled content and EPR.
None of this will be overnight. It could take several years for the impact of the treaty to be felt in ways that impact individual people or companies, in the way it has taken climate agreements time to filter down.
Countries first will have to reach a detailed agreement, there's a target date of late 2024 for that, and then nations likely will have to develop implementation plans.
They'll meet periodically to review those plans, probably in a manner like the climate gatherings we have now, the conference of the parties, or COPs as they are called, that draw a lot of media attention.
This Paris round did see serious divisions flare up. One observer, the head of Zero Waste Europe, wrote that he had mixed feelings.
He saw negotiators pressing ahead on writing draft language even as, in his view, oil and plastic-producing countries were already trying to water it down.
Groups like ZWE want a stronger tie-in to climate and planetary boundaries. Some plastics groups — and there were more of them in Paris than the first round of talks in Uruguay in November — would prefer the treaty focus more on plastics in the environment and traditional waste management problems.
But there was general agreement on the need to move ahead.
Diplomats agreed that over the next six months they will write a detailed initial draft, which they can then debate at the next formal negotiations in Kenya in November. That's a big step.
And I should say, I'm not even getting into the public health aspects of the treaty in this column. That's also an important part of the dialogue.
Plastics groups including ACC left the talks saying they saw them in a positive light, with significant alignment around improving the environmental performance of plastics, design rules, better waste management and sustainable production and consumption of plastics.
What exactly the change is that will come from the treaty is hard to say but given that the talks are on a fast track — two years to reach an agreement is quick by international standards — it's clear change is coming.
Steve Toloken is Plastics News' Washington-based assistant managing editor. Follow him on Twitter @Steve_Toloken.