Global plastic treaty sees no agreement, but a push for breakthrough against pollution has been made

- May 1, 2024
| By : Monish Upadhyay |

Delhi generates around 11,500 tonnes of garbage every day of which 10% is plastic. If there is a surge in the recycling sector, the city may see a transition of waste workers from informal to more formal employment

CAPITAL's GARBAGE SHARE: Delhi generates around 11,500 tonnes of garbage daily of which 10 per cent is plastic

More than 2,500 delegates representing 170 countries and over 480 observer organisations, spanning NGOs, United Nations entities, and intergovernmental bodies, gathered in Ottawa, Canada from April 23 to 29 to advance discussions on a proposed treaty aimed at tackling plastic pollution head-on.

This gathering marked the latest installment in a series of negotiations following similar meetings in Punta del Este, Uruguay, in 2022, and Paris and Kenya in 2023. Once again, member states convened to address the urgent need to address the global plastic crisis.

The Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC), established under resolution 5/14 during the fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) in March 2022, is tasked with crafting a comprehensive treaty that addresses every aspect of the plastic lifecycle, from production and design to disposal.

“At the forefront of advocating for the establishment of UNEA was India,” notes Atin Biswas, Programme Director at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). However, negotiations have encountered significant challenges, particularly as India, with its diverse petrochemical industry ecosystem, grapples with pressures from oil-rich nations to reach a consensus.

“The treaty is a huge opportunity to curb the menace of plastic pollution from production to disposal stage,” emphasises Priti Mahesh, Chief Programme Coordinator at Toxics Link, underscoring the significance of these gatherings in shaping global efforts to address one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time.

According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), a staggering 2,000 garbage trucks’ worth of plastic find their way into the world’s rivers, oceans, and lakes every day. This onslaught amounts to a grim reality where approximately 19-23 tonnes of plastic waste infiltrate aquatic ecosystems daily, contaminating vital water bodies.

“The world is suffocating under the weight of plastic,” remarks Dr Ruby Makhija, founder of the NGO, Why Waste Wednesdays Foundation.

Reflecting on the environmental toll of plastic, Dr. Makhija mentions a startling statistic: “Every week, an individual unwittingly ingests around 5 gm of microplastic, equivalent to a credit card.”

Biswas, shedding light on the ubiquity of plastic, describes it as an inadvertent creation that now pervades numerous industries, including aviation, defence, railways, automobiles, and medical equipment.

The provisional agenda for the Ottawa INC meeting aimed to address procedural rules and chart the course for future sessions. “In the four rounds of negotiations so far, progress has been impeded by delays from many countries,” notes Priti.

Despite the formulation of a zero draft treaty following the Paris talks, numerous countries have raised objections and proposed alternative options for various provisions. “Many countries remain at odds with the draft treaty’s provisions, leading to the proliferation of alternatives for single provisions,” Biswas explains, underscoring the challenges in reaching a consensus on this critical issue.

The zero draft of the proposed treaty takes a comprehensive approach to addressing the plastic crisis, recognising it not merely as a waste issue but as a complex challenge requiring action across its entire life cycle.

Key provisions include identification and action on toxic chemicals used in plastic, improved waste management practices, and measures to enhance product design. However, resistance from several countries, including India, has hindered progress towards a consensus.

India has voiced opposition to any limitations on primary plastic polymers or virgin plastics, advocating instead for regulation rather than outright elimination of emissions across the plastic life cycle.

UNEP’s report highlights the staggering scale of plastic production, with approximately 400 million tonnes generated annually and an estimated 7 billion tonnes produced between 1950 and 2017 ultimately becoming waste.

Atin emphasises that the treaty aims to address plastic throughout its entire life cycle, with upstream measures focusing on production curbs, midstream efforts aimed at simplifying plastic design to enhance recyclability, and downstream solutions targeting the management of discarded plastic.

While plastic’s utility is undeniable, its impact is equally widespread. Microplastics, measuring up to 5mm in diameter, have permeated various aspects of daily life.

Dr Makhija warns, “Microplastics have been detected in drinking water, table salt, mother’s milk, and even the placenta of unborn babies.” She emphasises the shift from responsible use to rampant abuse of plastic materials.

Meanwhile, Biswas underscores the large-scale plastic production, largely propelled by the petrochemical industry itself.”

However, amid these challenges, there is cause for optimism. Following the negotiations in Ottawa, an advanced draft text of the proposed treaty has been developed, accompanied by mutual agreement on intersessional work leading up to the fifth INC session in South Korea’s Busan.

Intersessional work involves expert meetings held between official INC sessions. Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP, expressed satisfaction with the outcomes of the Ottawa meetings, stating, “We came to Ottawa with the aim of advancing the text and securing agreement on the necessary intersessional work to make further progress before INC-5. We leave Ottawa having achieved both objectives, with a clear path towards achieving an ambitious agreement in Busan.”

Regarding the potential impact of such an international treaty in Delhi, Mahesh highlights that its efficacy hinges on the final form of the treaty.

“If the treaty includes measures to control plastic production, it will lead to a positive impact,” she asserts. “It would incentivise the adoption of alternatives to plastic, thereby opening up opportunities for job transitions from the plastic industry to alternative sectors.”

In Delhi, the daily waste output amounts to a staggering 11,500 tons, with approximately 10% of this attributed to plastic. Alarmingly, half of this plastic, roughly 550 tons, comprises single-use items.

RECYCLING HUB: Delhi stands as a crucial centre for recycling activities, offering significant potential for growth

The ongoing treaty negotiations prioritise waste management, with a particular emphasis on bolstering the recycling industry and adopting state-of-the-art technologies.

Delhi stands as a crucial centre for recycling activities, offering significant potential for growth. Priti underscores the likelihood of a surge in the recycling sector, which could facilitate the transition of waste workers from an unregulated, informal sector to a more secure, structured, formal environment.

Biswas emphasises that once the treaty is ratified, it becomes imperative for all signatories to adhere to its provisions, highlighting the importance of global commitment to address the plastic crisis effectively.