Plastic solution: Beyond the Global Plastics Treaty

Plastic pollution cannot be ended by treaties, without investment in alternatives 

May 08, 2024 12:10 am | Updated 10:57 am IST

The Global Plastics Treaty, an ambitious initiative involving at least 175 United Nations member nations to eliminate the use of plastics, concluded its fourth round of negotiations recently. The goal is to finalise a legal document by the end of 2024 with timelines by when countries must agree to curb plastic production, eliminate its uses that create wastage, ban certain chemicals used in its production and set targets for recycling. Unfortunately, an agreement is not in sight. There is yet another round of negotiations scheduled in Busan, South Korea this November. The primary hurdles are economic. Oil producing and refining countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United States, Russia, India and Iran are reluctant about hard deadlines to eliminate plastic production. A coalition of African countries, supported by several European nations, is in favour of a year, around 2040, to ensure that a timeline for reduction is in effect. There is also disagreement on whether contentious elements in the treaty should be decided on by a vote or consensus — the latter implying that every country has a veto. India’s opinion, other than being uncomfortable with binding targets, is that a legally binding instrument to end the plastic pollution must also address “... availability, accessibility, affordability of alternatives including cost implications and specifying arrangements... for capacity building and technical assistance, technology transfer, and financial assistance”. This language — and India is not the only proponent — is reminiscent of the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ enshrined in climate talks. Under this, countries must have a common target but those more privileged must support others and take on stricter targets themselves.

In the year that the plastics treaty was mooted, in 2022, India brought into effect the Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules (2021) that banned 19 categories of “single-use” plastics. It, however, does not include plastic bottles — even those less than 200 ml — and multi-layered packaging boxes (as in milk cartons). Moreover, even the ban on single-use plastic items is not uniformly enforced nationally, with several outlets continuing to retail these goods. The global distribution of the plastic pollution is unequal with Brazil, China, India and the U.S. responsible for 60% of plastic waste, according to a report by the non-profit EA Earth Action. Much like how transitioning away from fossil fuel invites its own challenges, plastic pollution cannot be ended by merely signing treaties. There needs to be much greater investment in alternative products and making them affordable before realistic targets are decided upon.

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