chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.


Spring 2024: Plastic

Priorities in the UN Global Plastics Treaty Negotiations

Noreen O’Meara


  • The United Nations’ negotiation process to draft an international legally binding instrument on plastics pollution (Global Plastics Treaty) is a historic opportunity to transform plastics governance globally.
  • A growing body of scientific findings are revealing the impacts of plastics pollution for human health and ecosystems.
  • The Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution should learn lessons from previous negotiations to avoid risks of corporate greenwashing undermining the Global Plastics Treaty legitimacy.
  • The growing scale of emissions from the plastics lifecycle adds considerable pressure to states’ urgent decarbonization agendas.
Priorities in the UN Global Plastics Treaty Negotiations
Henrik Weis via Getty Images

Jump to:

The United Nations’ negotiation process to draft an international legally binding instrument on plastics pollution (Global Plastics Treaty) is a historic opportunity to transform plastics governance globally. Even five years ago, the prospect of holding these negotiations was uncertain. The negotiations are taking place amid growing scientific findings revealing the impacts of plastics pollution for human health and ecosystems—and on the significant implications of the global plastics economy for climate change.

The challenge of addressing plastics pollution through regulatory and policy measures is formidable for several reasons. By its nature, plastic is inherently unsustainable: Almost 99% of plastics are fossil-fuel-based. We cannot rely on existing regulations or on technology to fully address the harms posed by plastics to the triple planetary crisis of climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss, or the risks that chemical loads in virgin and recycled plastics pose to human health. P.J. Landrigan et al., The Minderoo/Monaco Commission on Plastics and Human Health, 89 Annals of Global Health 23 (2023); N. O’Meara, Human Rights and the Global Plastics Treaty to Protect Health, Ocean Ecosystems and Our Climate, 38 Int’l J. Marine & Coastal L. 480 (2023). Plastics are produced, consumed, and wasted at an ever-rising scale, with some 14 million tons (Mt) of plastics waste entering oceans every year. IUCN, Marine Plastic Pollution, Issues Brief, Nov. 2021. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reports that high proportions of global plastics end up unrecycled (91%), of which substantial volumes of waste plastics reach landfills (49%), are mismanaged or uncollected (22%), or are incinerated (19%)—end of life destinations that have toxic environmental consequences. OECD, Global Plastics Outlook: Policy Scenarios to 2060 (Feb. 2022).

The plastics industry, almost entirely based on fossil fuel extraction, is projected to grow substantially under a future business-as-usual scenario, with plastics production set to double by 2040 and triple by 2060. The Pew Charitable Trusts, working with SYSTEMIQ, developed projections indicating that the carbon burden of these increases will comprise 19% of the global carbon budget by 2050. Pew Charitable Trusts & SYSTEMIQ, Breaking the Plastic Wave: A Comprehensive Assessment of Pathways Towards Stopping Ocean Plastic Pollution (2020). The growing scale of emissions from the plastics life cycle adds considerable pressure to states’ urgent decarbonization agendas.

The existing governance landscape both elevates the size of the challenge and offers an opportunity to agree on impactful, legally binding measures to address plastics pollution. Aspects of the plastics waste crisis intersect with multiple legal fields—from chemical regulation and product safety to international trade and environmental law. The human rights at stake in connection with the plastics life cycle are diverse, including the human right to health, the increasingly embedded right to a healthy environment, and the rights of children and Indigenous communities.

In the Global Plastics Treaty negotiations, states and observers should be alert to arguments favoring light-touch regulatory intervention, on principle, in the alleged interests of avoiding overlaps with existing legal instruments. That argument is not a compelling reason to dilute the ambition of the treaty, which offers the first real opportunity to govern the entire life cycle of plastics in a systemic way.

Under UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) Resolution 5/14, End plastic pollution: Towards an international legally binding instrument (UNEP/EA.5/Res.14 (Mar. 2, 2022)), UNEA requested the convening of an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) to conduct the negotiations. Following a tight two-year schedule, negotiations started in November 2022 (INC-1, Uruguay), continued in May 2023 (INC-2, France), and recently concluded the third round in November 2023 (INC-3, Kenya). The U.N. Environment Programme’s (UNEP) publication of the “Zero Draft” treaty text (UNEP/PP/INC.3/4, Sept. 4, 2023) served as the basis for negotiations at INC-3. A “Revised Zero Draft” text (UNEP/PP/INC.4/3, Dec. 28, 2023), taking into account the outcomes of negotiations at INC-3, provides the basis for further negotiations at INC-4 (Canada, Apr. 2024) and INC-5 (South Korea, Nov. 2024), where the final treaty should be agreed to. At the halfway point of the negotiations, this article considers selected critical developments, the priorities of several coalitions and groups, and the prospects for an impactful Global Plastics Treaty.

The Lead-Up to the Global Plastics Treaty Negotiations

In the decade leading up to the current treaty negotiations, the passage of several UNEA resolutions on the theme of “marine litter” played an essential political role in building momentum for a Global Plastics Treaty. Following the UN Rio+20 conference, the Global Partnership on Marine Litter launch, and calls from Small Island Developing States, UNEA Resolution 1/6 (2014) recognized environmental harms caused by marine plastics as a priority issue. Its adoption set in motion a series of resolutions addressing aspects of the plastics waste crisis. UNEA Resolution 2/11 (2016) highlighted the value of a product life-cycle approach, encouraging manufacturers to take account of the future environmental impacts of their products. UNEA Resolution 3/7 (2018) consolidated a vision for the “long-term elimination of litter and microplastics to the oceans,” calling on parties to “prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution by 2025”—a soft goal states will fail to meet. However, this resolution reflected priorities that the current negotiations might solidify: the urgency of action, reach into core sectors across the plastics value chain, and accelerating roll-outs of extended producer responsibility (EPR) and deposit-return schemes (DRS). UNEA Resolution 4/6 (2019) pressed for more scientific engagement to identify the effects of plastics and microplastics on human health and the environment and called for optimized data, monitoring, and awareness-raising of the harms of plastics waste. Through these Resolutions, states called on the UNEP to build the case for regulating plastics at the international level.

UNEA Resolution 5/14 (2022) set the mandate to commence the Global Plastics Treaty negotiations. This Resolution reflected proposals advanced by Rwanda and Peru, which envisaged a treaty encompassing a whole life-cycle approach, with legally binding rules and interventions at the upstream, midstream, and downstream areas of the life cycle. This vision contrasted with proposals from Japan (to omit product design) and India (favoring a voluntary global framework rather than legally binding rules). The mandate set in UNEA Resolution 5/14 saw states agree to negotiate an instrument that could include a mix of voluntary and legally binding approaches based on an approach addressing the full life cycle of plastic, and which, among other things, would promote sustainable production, consumption, and sound waste management, including through resource efficiency and circular economy approaches. As such, a literal interpretation of the Resolution anticipates an instrument that engages with the plastics life cycle commencing at fossil fuel extraction, with provisions optimising circularity by keeping plastics in the value chain and minimizing or, ideally, eliminating plastics waste. This kind of comprehensive approach would be critical to delivering an instrument that has a systemic, global impact. Further, the Resolution, at paragraph 4(d), called on the INC to consider the best available science and adopt an inclusive approach so that “traditional knowledge, knowledge of indigenous peoples and local knowledge systems” could inform the treaty.

Negotiating a Global Plastics Treaty: What Do Negotiators Want?

This vision for an inclusive negotiation process articulated in UNEA Resolution 5/14 has already proven challenging in the early rounds of the INC. As in climate negotiations, the attendance and participation of community groups and researchers as observers, rather than restricted to side events, is an ever-present challenge to transparency. In the three INC negotiation rounds held thus far, several broad coalitions and groupings, including states, businesses, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and independent scientists, have coordinated to explain arguments and potentially influence the scope, substance, and ambition of the treaty text.

For example, the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution (HAC), co-chaired by Norway and Rwanda, started the negotiations with the greatest momentum. Currently comprising 63 countries and the EU, the HAC’s core goal is eliminating plastics pollution by 2040, driven by a global shift to a circular economy model for plastics across the life cycle. As such, the coalition supports curbing the consumption and production of plastic to “sustainable levels,” measures to facilitate a circular economy, and optimizing waste management and recycling of plastics. To achieve these strategic goals, the HAC envisages a mix of command-and-control measures (e.g., bans and restrictions), global sustainability criteria, standards and targets for plastics, measures to render value chains more transparent, and an agreement spanning the whole life cycle of plastics.

Convened by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty comprises various businesses connected to the plastics industry in the production, waste management, and financial sectors and across retail. Break Free From Plastic’s 2023 Brand Audit Report identified several endorsing businesses as some of the biggest downstream polluters over the past five years, including Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Unilever, and PepsiCo. While the Business Coalition’s supporter base has doubled since the start of the negotiations, it is not representative of the production end of the plastics value chain. The Business Coalition’s core target is a slower reduction of plastics pollution by at least 80% by 2040 and close to 100% by 2060. However, its stated vision supports an ambitious, legally binding treaty to facilitate system-wide transformation using a circular economy approach. Over 150 businesses have endorsed the Business Coalition’s proposals thus far.

The role of corporate influence in the INC process is provocative, with good reason. Strong and lucrative vested interests across the plastics sector favor a diluted instrument. In this respect, the INC should learn lessons from previous negotiations to manage corporate interests constructively and avoid risks of corporate greenwashing undermining the treaty’s legitimacy. See, e.g., Rob Ralston et al., Corporate Interests and the UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution: Neglecting Lessons from the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, 402 The Lancet 2272 (2023). As evidence of this issue, the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) identified a sharp rise in lobbyists connected to fossil fuel and chemical industries at INC-3 compared to INC-2, as negotiators began discussing the Zero Draft text. CIEL, Fossil Fuel and Chemical Industries Registered More Lobbyists at Plastics Treaty Talks Than 70 Countries Combined (Nov. 15, 2023).

Providing independent, research-based analysis on relevant aspects of the proposed treaty, The Scientists’ Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty (Scientists’ Coalition) is an independent network of over 300 scientists from around the globe. The Scientists’ Coalition’s stated goal is to support the development of a treaty grounded in evidence-based decision-making and respecting the precautionary principle, in the spirit of the mandate set by UNEA Resolution 5/14. Following that objective, the Coalition’s activities aim to highlight and explain multiple health risks across the plastics life cycle. Its activities are carried out with limited external funding from the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad) and the Research Council of Norway and underscore the strict limitations on the participation of observers at early negotiation rounds and the absence of an official scientific advisory committee operating during the INC negotiation process. In its Response to the Zero Draft Text (Nov. 2023), the Scientists’ Coalition called for a science-policy interface as a subsidiary body of the Global Plastics Treaty, supported by a robust conflict of interest policy, to provide independent expertise for future development of essential criteria and a hybrid regulatory approach.

Representing a labor force of over 20 million people worldwide, the International Alliance of Waste-pickers (IAWP) supports a just transition for waste-pickers and other workers in the plastics value chain. Many in the “informal” but essential plastics labor force are from impoverished, marginalized communities and face exposure to hazardous working conditions. The IAWP and Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), alongside other groups and NGOs focused on workers’ rights, have highlighted the crucial importance of workers and those living with the consequences of plastics waste pollution informing the substance of the treaty. In their August 14, 2023, INC-3 Pre-session submission, IAWP and WIEGO called for just transition as a core obligation in the future treaty. This call to give just transition a central role is based on the need to protect and support workers through alternative job creation in waste management services, protect workers from hazardous plastics, and recognize waste-pickers as vulnerable frontline communities in the plastics waste crisis.

With various regional groups coordinating during the INC process, including the Group of Latin America and Caribbean Countries, and the Alliance of Small Island States, new groupings also have formed. These include the UNEP-supported African Group of Negotiators (formed under Decision AMCEN/18/2, 18th African Ministerial Conference on the Environment, Sept. 2022) to coordinate Africa’s interests in the negotiations. While the United States is not officially aligned with any specific coalition, the End Plastic Pollution International Collaborative, a new public-private partnership hosted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, received initial funding from the U.S. State Department. These groupings can facilitate consultations, outreach, and analysis of options for the treaty both within and outside formal negotiations. However, the coordination of a new “like-minded group” for “plastics sustainability” at INC-3, comprising Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and several other countries, raised concerns that their arguments—such as removing plastic polymers from the treaty’s scope—could dilute and jeopardize the ambitious elements of the draft text.

How Ambitious Could the Global Plastics Treaty Be?

INC negotiators have debated the applicable rules of procedure extensively, with the voting protocol contained in Section IV.A., UNEP/PP/INC.2/L.1 (June 1, 2023), proving contentious. Although the INC can make progress while the draft rules of procedure are still applied provisionally, a failure to agree on the voting question could present risks to the negotiations. Despite this, advanced work on the objectives and substance was evident in the Zero Draft text, which provided an initial template of options covering many key themes that will feature in the treaty. The Zero Draft reflected the objectives and mandate of UNEA Resolution 5/14 and aimed to reflect the views of states and observers submitted in the early negotiation rounds.

The outcome of the negotiations at INC-3 (Nov. 2023) was an extended and heavily revised draft text (Revised Zero Draft), containing an array of alternative options for each provision. The proposed objective illustrates this well. In the Zero Draft, option 1 provided a goal “to end plastic pollution, including in the marine environment, and to protect human health and the environment,” whereas option 2 framed the goal of the treaty as protecting “human health and the environment from plastic pollution, including in the marine environment,” with possible sub-options on ending plastic pollution, addressing the whole plastics life cycle, and progressively reducing and eliminating plastic pollution by 2040, or lighter language on managing plastics and plastics waste while contributing to sustainable development. During INC-3, states proposed 11 and 18 alternatives to these options, respectively, a range that makes reaching consensus challenging. A positive sign is that all but one of these alternative options (OP1 Alt 8) explicitly retained the protection of human health and the environment in the treaty’s objective. For a complete review of options proposed at INC-3, see UNEP, INC-3, Contact Group 1: Rev. Co-facilitators’ Updated Full Compilation of the Zero Draft Text (Nov. 19, 2023). The Revised Zero Draft retains these two options for the objective, both containing extensive bracketing reflecting the breadth of the proposals from negotiators (Revised Zero Draft, Part I.2). While this bodes well for the framing of the treaty, the attention given to human rights is slender overall in the Revised Zero Draft text.

Certain headline themes are driving continued negotiations, including proposed curbs on production, chemical safety and simplification, and bans/phasedowns for nonessential plastics. A crucial challenge is whether the treaty should impose an overall cap on plastics production. Early in the negotiations, the U.N. Development Programme’s January 12, 2023, INC-2 Pre-session submission, at 2, called for a phase-out of production as part of a “zero-pollution vision.” Part II.1. of the Revised Zero Draft on primary plastic polymers proposed an obligation on parties to “take the necessary measures to prevent and mitigate the potential for adverse impacts on human health [and][or] the environment from the production of primary plastic polymers [and secondary plastics], including their feedstocks and precursors [to manage production and consumption of plastics through product design and environmentally sound waste management, including through resource efficiency and circular economy approaches].” Three alternative sub-options include expectations for a global baseline, timeframe(s) for action, and a reduction target. The strongest language, in sub-option 1, would foresee legally binding reduction targets for parties in pursuit of an overarching global legally binding target. There have been calls for far-reaching reductions to plastics production from the Nordic Council of Ministers, Greenpeace, and others on the basis that reductions are achievable and necessary for states to meet climate goals. The Revised Zero Draft includes several alternative options added for consideration in future negotiation rounds, one of which proposes no provision at all.

Will the treaty make plastics safer for consumers? On the regulation of chemicals and polymers of concern, the Revised Zero Draft includes five options for states to consider under Part II.2, in addition to an Option 0 removing this fundamental topic from the treaty’s scope. The strongest of these, Option 1, proposes legally binding obligations on the use of named groups of chemicals and polymers specified in the treaty in the production of plastics (with exceptions), and for eliminating the production, sale, distribution, import, or export of plastic polymers, plastics, and plastic products containing specific groups of chemicals (with a range of bracketed elements for negotiation). Options 2 and 3 included lighter language, maximizing flexibility for parties. Notably, Option 4 integrates the advisory role of “Science, Technology and Economics Panels” in recommending action under this provision (Revised Zero Draft, Part II.1, Option 4, paras. 5–6). Finally, Option 5 proposes identification of chemicals of concern to be regulated by the Stockholm and Rotterdam Conventions, a proposal echoing some negotiators’ arguments that regime overlap should be avoided, despite existing regimes failing to effectively regulate the complex phenomenon of plastics pollution.

If negotiators succeed in retaining measures on chemicals and polymers of concern, the unambitious, non–legally binding options would fail to genuinely impact the plastics value chain in the interests of public health. The plastics pollution crisis is a toxic threat to human health, with abundant scientific evidence on health risks justifying a precautionary approach. Studies on the chemical loads of plastics, increased quantification of the numbers of chemicals lacking hazard data, and findings on the hazardous chemical loads in plastic products all highlight the impact the treaty could have on this fragmented aspect of regulation. See, e.g., Karen Raubenheimer & Niko Urho, Global Governance of Plastics and Associated Chemicals, Secretariats of the Basel, Rotterdam & Stockholm Conventions, Geneva, 2023 (May 2, 2023); Helene Wiesinger et al., Deep Dive into Plastic Monomers, Additives, and Processing Aids, 55 Env’t Sci. & Tech. 9339 (2021).

National and regional measures are increasingly targeting problematic and nonessential plastic products, including single-use plastics and microplastics (see Revised Zero Draft Part II.3). From Bangladesh’s pioneering ban on single-use plastic carrier bags in 2002, to India’s recent national bag ban in 2022, such measures have proliferated in countries and cities worldwide. The EU’s Single-Use Plastics Directive illustrates regional action on market restrictions across a broader range of products, aiming to accelerate EPR and DRS schemes in member states. Regulation on microplastics is catching up at the EU level, with the implementation of Commission Regulation 2023/2055 restricting intentionally added microplastics products under the EU’s Registration, Evaluation Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulation, which entered into force on October 17, 2023.

These developments may have inspired elements of Part II.3 of the Revised Zero Draft. Under the strongest Option 1 proposal, legally binding rules would either ban or reduce the “production, sale, distribution, import or export” of specified products, potentially including short-lived and single-use products, and would commit to phasing down the production, sale, distribution, and trade of further specified products, by fixed deadlines. Under the weaker Option 2, the proposal may or may not be legally binding, and national plans would reflect “necessary measures” for parties on these themes. Finally, Option 3 includes lighter language by which states are “encouraged to take measures to gradually reduce the use” of problematic products, in the light of the “availability, accessibility and affordability” of sustainable alternatives. The stronger option could do far more to universalize market restrictions on specific products. Again, at least one state objected to including these topics in the treaty’s scope, indicating that even more mainstream measures face pushback in the negotiations.

It is evident that this goal is one of several in the draft treaty that would require financial and capacity support for some countries to achieve—notably, in the proposed rollout of EPR in Revised Zero Draft, Part II.7, and optimization of waste management in Revised Zero Draft, Part II.9. Discussions in early rounds of negotiations addressed calls for a financial mechanism pursuant to Revised Zero Draft, Part III.1, that would take account of the needs of Small Island Developing States and least-developed countries. Further, across this and several other goals, the need for a science-policy interface is evident. Although the Revised Zero Draft only explicitly mentions this in the Preamble, the role of a scientific expert panel is referenced in several proposed provisions (e.g., in relation to monitoring the implementation of the treaty, Revised Zero Draft, Part IV.4). A solid scientific and evidential basis would be required to inform relevant definitions and the content of annexes; set criteria for assessing the essentiality, safety, and sustainability of plastics; and advise on future scientific developments. Pursuant to Revised Zero Draft, Part II.6, this evidentiary requirement should apply equally to proposed nonplastic substitutes: The impacts of any proposed substitutes across their full life cycles must be scrutinized just as carefully as the materials they may replace.

Looking Ahead to the Future Negotiations

The publication of the Zero Draft treaty text showed promising signs that the text could be ambitious and impactful. The outcome of INC-3 was a reality check: Ambition is still achievable, but the challenge of overcoming pushback on relatively mainstream options is immense. In the latest Revised Zero Draft treaty text, the presence of multiple “no provision” options, requested by at least one party, suggesting removing curbs on production, polymers and chemicals of concern, EPR, and other issues from the treaty’s scope, means disagreements remain on critical themes that would determine the treaty’s success and impact. Proposals to remove subsidies and fiscal incentives for primary plastics production are currently adjacent to a bracketed proposal to increase subsidies and incentives for the production of secondary plastics (currently proposed in the sub-options under Part II.1 in the Revised Zero Draft). Future negotiation rounds at INC-4 and INC-5 must, therefore, confront the terrain of political choices that can lock in or break from the default approach of incentivizing fossil fuel–based plastics production.

As negotiations continue in 2024, states will reveal whether they are prepared to back legally binding measures to target the scale of production, circularize and detoxify the plastics value chain, or prefer light-touch commitments limiting accountability for states. As the United States produces the most plastic and generates the most plastic waste, its negotiation strategy will be impactful. The negotiators’ choices point to very different outcomes for the global carbon budget. Future drafts and votes will soon signal which tracts states decide to take.