Even as the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) discusses the feasibility of hammering out a legally binding, global plastics treaty, the major US-based chemical and plastics manufacturers are spending millions of US dollars lobbying to weaken the scope of the treaty. Governing Plastics Network researcher Shashi Kant Yadav looks at the pressure being exerted on policy makers behind the scenes by powerful industrial interests and asks what it might mean for any treaty regulating plastic pollution.
Since 2014 the UNEA has been carving out the possibility of conceptualising a global plastics treaty. However, the UNEA efforts gained substantive momentum in 2019 when the Nordic Council publicly supported the prospects of a globally binding plastics pollution treaty. Since then, the UNEA, member countries, and plastics related stakeholders have been discussing various frameworks to lay down the foundation of a global plastics treaty. The basic point of conflict between the various frameworks boils down to a single issue: what should be the scope of the treaty?
The chemical and plastics manufacturers assert that a global plastics treaty should predominantly cover only the disposal of plastics. On the other side, civil societies, along with most of the African and European countries, argue that the treaty must tackle pollution throughout the entire plastics supply chain – chemical production, plastics design, and disposal – not only including the environmental impact of the plastics supply chain but also protecting human health against plastics-led diseases.
At the heart of the debate are two draft resolutions: the Rwanda Peru resolution and the Japan resolution. While the Rwanda Peru resolution proposes bringing the whole plastics life cycle within the ambit of the treaty, the Japan resolution mainly focuses on the discharge of plastic waste into the marine environment.
The Rwanda Peru resolution would have far-reaching impacts on plastics manufacturers and global retail industries as it covers the production of plastics (including the impact of chemicals used in plastics production on the environment and human health and greenhouse gas emission due to fossil-fuelled plastics production) product design (including a ban on the single-use plastics), sustainable consumer behaviour related to plastics and waste management (plastics disposal, sustainable recycling, etc).
For this reason, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), a consortium of 190 leading industries including ExxonMobil Chemical Company, Shell Chemical and Dow are aggressively lobbying against the Rwanda Peru resolution. The desperation of the ACC to water down the treaty’s scope is demonstrated by the fact that in the United States, it spent USD 16.6 million in 2021 on lobbying against national-level extended producer responsibility, which puts the responsibility on the manufacturers to undertake waste management and sustainable recycling activities, including restrictions on the production of single-use plastics.
Since the ACC industries operate across the world, they have escalated their lobbying efforts to a global level and the impact can be felt in international diplomacy. Till now around 58 countries have publicly endorsed the comprehensive approach taken by the Rwanda Peru resolution. However, supporters of Peru-Rwanda fear that the US and its allies at UNEA may back the Japan resolution. Political campaigning is rife in the US. The ACC plans to escalate its political campaigning expenditure, ultimately pressurising the US government to use its diplomatic soft power at UNEA in pursuit of gaining endorsements for the Japan resolution.
For more on the differences between the two competing treaty proposals, check out this video on the Governing Plastic Network’s Social media.