Australia is one of the world’s largest producers of single-use plastic waste. It is also among the countries leading the increasingly troubled treaty negotiations to ban it. By Russell Marks.

The battle for an anti-plastics treaty

A man collects rubbish by a river filled with plastic.
A man collects plastic rubbish from the San Juan River in Manila.
Credit: Ezra Acayan / Getty Images

Delegates from India, China and Saudi Arabia this week attempted to derail negotiations in Paris towards a legally binding United Nations treaty to dramatically cut plastic pollution.

Following decades of activism and urging, the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) agreed in March last year to a resolution calling for a treaty that would, among other things, contain an “internationally legally binding instrument on plastic pollution” based on “a comprehensive approach that addresses the full life cycle of plastics”.

But amid overwhelming support for the treaty from most of the world’s 193 nations, and optimism among activists and non-government observers, India and China stalled progress by reopening discussion on previously agreed decision-making rules. Oil-producing states also tried to carve out vetos and exemptions for themselves from any binding treaty.

A report released last month by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which is governed by the assembly, outlines how reorienting the plastics market towards “circularity”, using existing technology, could eliminate plastic pollution by up to 80 per cent by 2040.

In a circular economy, the report explains, products would be designed and created from the outset “in such a way that they can be reused, remanufactured, recycled or recovered”. This contrasts with the present “linear” approach to plastics production, whereby we attempt to work out what to do with existing plastics only after they’re manufactured.

Current estimates of the externalised costs of plastic pollution – what the world spends on ocean clean-up, marine ecosystem services, hazardous chemical clean-up, and measures to offset carbon dioxide and air pollution – range from $US293.5 billion to more than $US500 billion every year.

“I was amazed at how comprehensive the text of the resolution was,” says Dr Karen Raubenheimer, a senior lecturer at the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security, a joint program of the University of Wollongong and the Royal Australian Navy. ANCORS has produced research reports for UNEP aimed at improving the global framework to prevent plastic pollution.

Many factors dovetailed to create the conditions for the unanimous agreement, Raubenheimer says, including the acknowledgement by the plastics industry itself of the global crisis of plastic pollution. “But when the research began to confirm the effects on humans [of plastic pollution], that’s what really galvanised the will of governments,” she says.

There is mounting evidence everyday exposure to plastics contributes to obesity, diabetes, cancer and reproductive problems. Studies have found plastic particles in human blood and organs, and recent research suggests that, on average, five grams of plastic enter every person’s gastrointestinal tract each week.

“We know which mechanisms work and which don’t work,” Eirik Lindebjerg tells The Saturday Paper from Oslo, where he is global plastics policy lead for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”

Now scientific research has led to global consensus among governments, activists and even industry on the need to act, Lindebjerg says political will is the factor that will determine how effective the treaty will be.

The experts The Saturday Paper spoke to cite the “start and strengthen” mechanisms in existing treaties, ranging from the Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting substances to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, as successful models for the present negotiations.

Australia was among the 193 nations that unanimously agreed on the resolution’s text on March 2, 2022. In November, the new Environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, joined Australia to a High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution (HAC) formed by Rwanda and Norway to progress negotiations between the five formal five-day sessions towards an “ambitious” treaty instrument.

Australia’s decision to join the HAC surprised advocates, given its global reputation for recalcitrance on pro-environment action that might adversely affect the fossil fuel industry. Plastics are a product of that industry. Other unexpected members of HAC, all but seven of whose members are European or developing states, include Canada, Britain, South Korea and now Japan, which have significant plastics industries, and the United Arab Emirates, among the world’s largest oil exporters.

“It’s still too early to draw conclusions about the precise role Australia will play in negotiations,” Lindebjerg told The Saturday Paper. There is hope among treaty advocates that Australia has joined the HAC in good faith. But states such as Australia may be key if the pro-treaty nations attempt to vote down India and China. This would itself be extraordinary, as UNEA conventionally prefers to reach consensus.

The HAC now has 58 members. Only three are Pacific Island nations, which reflects their back-seat role in these treaty negotiations, in stark contrast with their effective advocacy on climate change. Many advocates have expressed frustration at their silence. “The climate change link is very strong,” says one researcher, but they suggest most Pacific Island nations have not yet made that link.

As if to demonstrate its credentials, Australia hosted a HAC webinar on April 26, which featured the CSIRO’s principal research scientist, Dr Denise Hardesty, and representatives from the Cook Islands government and the Pacific Ocean Litter Project, as well as from the WWF and the Minderoo Foundation.

Sceptics observed that the webinar’s discussion focused squarely on so-called “single-use” plastics, which, while contributing significantly to plastic waste, are also relatively low-hanging fruit.

Notoriously, Australian governments and companies maintain a loose definition of “single-use” that allows retailers to continue to provide plastic bags of a certain minimum thickness, and that doesn’t include most plastic packaging.

Yet sources have told The Saturday Paper Plibersek is more energetic on the issue than her predecessor, Sussan Ley. At the United Nations Ocean Conference in Lisbon last July, Plibersek announced $16 million to support the Pacific’s litter action plan and said she wanted to see “a plastic-free Pacific in my lifetime”.

In its submission to the treaty committee following the first round of negotiations, which were held late last year in Uruguay, the Albanese government endorsed the March 2022 resolution’s focus on “the full life cycle of plastics” and reasoned – consistent with the other HAC members – that achievement will be a “long-term endeavour”. The HAC countries want the treaty to include “start and strengthen” mechanisms that allow for “improvements” – in other words, gradually tighter restrictions over time.

It’s common for major environmental treaty negotiations to take 10 years, yet the March 2022 resolution requires agreement by the end of 2024. Unless UNEA agrees to extend the deadline, there are only three week-long sessions remaining through which to reach agreement. Despite the hope generated by the resolution, many experts and advocates are concerned the truncated time line for negotiations will favour industry efforts to ensure any agreed treaty text will largely devolve responsibility for waste-reduction to individual countries, and achieve little more than a global aspiration to recycle more: in other words, an extension of the status quo.

“That we can recycle our way out of this crisis is a farce, a myth propagated by industry for decades,” says Babet de Groot, a doctoral candidate at Sydney University, where she is researching the politics and global governance of plastic pollution.

Notoriously, the resin identification codes – by which plastics are categorised by numbers inside equilateral triangles, ostensibly to assist the sorting of recyclate – were created by the industry in 1988 to head off earlier moves towards a global agreement to regulate plastic pollution. Less than 10 per cent of plastic is presently recycled – and most of that plastic can be recycled a mere handful of times.

China, India and the United States, all enormous contributors towards plastic pollution, are among the other conspicuous absentees from the HAC. The Saturday Paper has been told the 2024 time line was effectively set by the Biden administration to coincide with the United States presidential election in November. Its own submission emphasises a “country-driven instrument” and “mandatory reporting” against national targets. Experts suggest such a model is unlikely to generate the necessary market transformations.

Treaty advocates hope the consensus on the need for change is backed by enough political will to usher negotiations past this week’s efforts to derail them.

Business as usual is estimated to triple the amount of plastic waste entering aquatic ecosystems by 2040. As Lindebjerg declares: “We don’t have the right to fail.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 3, 2023 as "Plastic urgency".

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