Need of Global Plastics Treaty

Context

  • Negotiators and observers from 175 countries arrived in Ottawa, Canada, to begin talks regarding the very first global treaty to curb plastics pollution.

Background

  • Under the UN Environment Assembly Resolution 5/14, the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) is responsible for delivering a global plastics treaty by the end of 2024.
  • The INC began its work during the second half of 2022. It is the fourth round of negotiations and the final round will take place in South Korea.
What is Plastic?

– Plastic refers to a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic materials that use polymers as a main ingredient with their defining quality being their plasticity – the ability of a solid material to undergo permanent deformation in response to applied forces.

– Most modern plastics are derived from fossil fuel-based chemicals like natural gas or petroleum.

Polymers used in Plastics

– The polymers used in plastic production are Polyethylene terephthalate or PET, High-density polyethylene or HDPE, Polyvinyl chloride or PVC, Low-density polyethylene or LDPE, Polypropylene or PP, and Polystyrene or PS.

– Each of these has different properties and can be identified by their resin identification code (RIC) denoted by symbols found on plastic products.

Concerns about Plastic Pollution

  • Plastics are hard to eradicate due to their slow decomposition rate in natural ecosystems.
  • Plastics break down into their smaller units called microplastics, which find their way across the planet, from the depths of the Pacific Ocean to the heights of the Himalayas.
  • BPA or Bisphenol A, the chemical that is used to harden plastic contaminates food and drinks, causing alterations in liver function, fetal development in pregnant women, the reproductive system, and brain function.
  • Plastic, which is a petroleum product, also contributes to global warming. If plastic waste is incinerated, it releases toxic fumes and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
  • Plastic waste damages the aesthetic value of tourist destinations, leading to decreased tourism-related incomes and major economic costs related to the cleaning and maintenance of the sites.

Why is a global plastics treaty needed?

  • Plastic production increased from just 2 million tonnes in 1950 to more than 450 million tonnes in 2019. If left unchecked, the production is slated to double by 2050, and triple by 2060.
  • Plastic takes anywhere from 20 to 500 years to decompose, and less than 10% has been recycled till now. According to a 2023 study published by The Lancet, nearly 6 billion tonnes now pollute the planet
  • About 400 million tonnes of plastic waste is generated annually, a figure expected to jump by 62% between 2024 and 2050.
  • According to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In 2019, plastics generated 1.8 billion tonnes of GHG emissions — 3.4% of global emissions.
  • Roughly 90% of these emissions come from plastic production.

Global Efforts In Tackling Plastic Waste

  • London Convention: The 1972 Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping Wastes and Other Matter.
  • Clean Seas Campaign: The United Nations Environment Programme launched the Campaign in 2017. It became the largest global campaign to raise awareness of plastic pollution and marine litter.
  • Basel Convention: In 2019, the Basel Convention was amended to include plastic waste as a regulated material.
  • The Convention contains three main entries on plastic wastes in Annex II, VIII, and IX of the Convention. The Plastic Waste Amendments of the convention are now binding on 186 States.

India’s Efforts In Tackling Plastic Waste

  • Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR): The Indian government has implemented EPR, making plastic manufacturers responsible for managing and disposing of the waste generated by their products.
  • Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules, 2022: It prohibits the manufacture, import, stocking, distribution, sale, and use of plastic carry bags having a thickness of less than 120 microns.
  • Swachh Bharat Abhiyan: It is a national cleanliness campaign, which includes the collection and disposal of plastic waste.
  • Plastic Parks: India has set up Plastic Parks, which are specialized industrial zones for recycling and processing plastic waste.
  • Beach clean-up drives: The Indian government and various non-governmental organizations have organized beach clean-up drives to collect and dispose of plastic waste from beaches.

Challenges to the treaty

  • Some of the biggest oil and gas-producing countries, as well as fossil fuel and chemical industry groups, are trying to narrow the scope of the treaty to focus just on plastic waste and recycling.
  • Countries like Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Iran have opposed plastic production caps, and are using myriad delay tactics (like arguing over procedural matters) to derail constructive dialogues.
  • Countries are yet to decide if the plastics treaty would be agreed upon by consensus or through a majority vote
  • There is a coalition of around 65 nations, known as the “High-Ambition Coalition” which seeks to tackle plastic production.
  • The US has not joined the HAC as it is a fossil gas country.

Way Ahead

  • The proposed treaty will be the most important environmental accord since the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, in which nations agreed to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
  • The treaty can theoretically lay out guidelines on how rich nations should help poorer ones meet their plastic reduction target.
  • It may also ban “particular types of plastic, plastic products, and chemical additives used in plastics, and set legally binding targets for recycling and recycled content used in consumer goods.