Future of the Environment

INC-3: Here’s what happened at the UN global plastics treaty talks

Negotiators have until the end of 2024 to agree to a UN Plastics Treaty that will end plastic pollution.

Negotiators have until the end of 2024 to agree to a UN Plastics Treaty that will end plastic pollution. Image: Unsplash/naja_bertolt_jensen

Kate Whiting
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
Robin Pomeroy
Podcast Editor, World Economic Forum
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Future of the Environment

  • Negotiators have until the end of 2024 to agree to a UN Plastics Treaty that will end plastic pollution.
  • The most recent round of these talks – the third session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3) – was held in Kenya in November 2023.
  • Kwame Asamoa Mensa-Yawson, who heads up the Ghana National Plastic Action Partnership, joined Radio Davos to talk through what happened at INC-3.

Every year, less than 10% of plastic waste is recycled, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, leading to an estimated 400 million tonnes of waste.

Of that, it’s estimated that more than 14 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean annually, harming marine life, with some continents contributing more than others.

To address the plastic problem, the UN is hosting a series of negotiations aimed at delivering the world's first treaty to control plastic pollution.

Graphs showcasing the annual estimate of plastic waste emissions.
How continents are contributing to the problem of ocean plastic. Image: Our World in Data

The most recent round of these talks – the third session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3) – was held in Kenya in November 2023, and the negotiators have until the end of 2024 to strike a deal for the control of plastics.

On the ground at INC-3 was Kwame Asamoa Mensa-Yawson, who heads up the Ghana National Plastic Action Partnership, a multistakeholder group looking at solutions to the plastics issue under the auspices of the World Economic Forum.

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Mensa-Yawson joined Radio Davos to talk through what happened at the third round of talks and how much closer we are to reaching a global deal to end plastic pollution. Here’s an edited version of the interview.

What’s the background to these talks?

"At the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA 5.2), in Nairobi, Kenya, in February 2022, there was a historic adoption of a resolution calling for a legally binding treaty to end plastic pollution.

"As a result, a mandate was given to an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee, called the INC, which will convene over five meetings to negotiate and develop this treaty to end plastic pollution, including in the marine environment.

"They've met three times now. The first meeting was in Uruguay, the second in France and the third was held in Kenya. The fourth and fifth meetings will take place in Canada and South Korea, respectively.

"The INC as the lead organization has the mandate for working together to negotiate the Plastics Treaty, leveraging all the UN member countries along with stakeholders like NGOs and affiliated members of UN agencies to also join in as observers."

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What might this plastics treaty do?

"People are calling it the “Paris Agreement for plastics”, and rightly so, because this is a very important treaty looking at one of the most serious environmental issues of our time – plastic pollution.

"The UNEA resolution that gave birth to all these discussions, End plastic pollution: towards an international legally binding instrument, clearly states the scope of the treaty, which aims to end plastic pollution, including in the marine environment.

"We’re expecting a robust, practical and ambitious treaty that includes actions to address the full life-cycle of plastics. So, looking at the upstream solutions and the downstream solutions and, also, most importantly, a treaty that has legally binding rules to ensure strict adherence to the provisions of the treaty by the different countries."

Could this treaty set rules on what countries can and can't do with plastics?

"The goal is that the treaty addresses the full life-cycle of plastics, so in terms of the production of plastics, you're looking at provisions about primary plastic polymers, for example. And there is text in the zero draft that talks about the need for countries to manage and reduce the production and consumption of plastics.

"There are other issues around the need for product design that leads to the reduction of plastics, for example, in packaging. Also looking at how plastics can be developed or designed better to ensure they can be repurposed easily, they can be recycled. And all these [factors] have an impact on the production and consumption of plastics.

"Again, there are also provisions around the reuse of recycled content, which would affect the use of virgin plastics in packaging or plastic use as well. There are also issues around a need for reuse, reduction and refill systems, which all come together to ensure that the production and consumption of plastics is adequately managed.

"On the issue of disposal, there are provisions in the zero draft, for example, looking at waste management. So, for example, how parties should ensure the different stages of waste management – looking at handling, collection, sorting, recycling, transportation and final disposal – are done in a way that plastics don't affect human life and wildlife, or impact ecosystems."

What is the ‘zero draft’ of the Plastics Treaty?

"At the second meeting of INC-2, in Paris, the chair was mandated to come up with what we call a zero draft, which would essentially be the basis for future discussions. And so it contains all the submissions made from the various countries, together with what we call a synthesis report.

"The zero draft in INC-3 was the basis of discussion for the various elements that could potentially end up in the treaty. At INC-3, different stakeholders were given the opportunity to review each of the options and propose any changes to them in the treaty."

Some of the chemicals that go into plastics are known as ‘problematic’. What does that mean?

"Work needs to be done to really explain and drill down on what these items would be. And we need science to inform us of the problematic plastics or products. I believe there's a need for intersessional work – between the INCs – where we bring together the various and relevant expert stakeholders to help provide some clarity on what some of these definitions will mean for the treaty.

"These are some of the issues that are currently causing disagreements between different countries in terms of what these items would essentially comprise or be composed of. So there's a need for science to come in here and advise on what we mean when we talk about problematic unnecessary plastics or products.

"Currently, different countries are establishing phase-out mechanisms for some of these types of plastics. And these learnings could be very useful in some of the discussions going forward."

Headlines from INC-3 spoke of a stalemate. Tell us what happened in the political standoff …

"The news covered the stalemate that happened at INC-3. The discussion was on what the treaty should address in terms of the scope. The UNEA resolution really sets out the scope for the treaty, which is to look at the full life cycle of plastics. A significant majority of member states are in alignment with this – that a treaty should look at upstream, downstream and even midstream solutions as well.

"But there are also a number of countries that believe the treaty should be targeted and narrowed to look at downstream solutions instead of upstream solutions that target the production and management of plastics upstream.

"So the key discussion point at INC-3 was around having that consensus on what issues should we look at if we're talking about the full life cycle of plastics."

You run the National Plastic Action Partnership in Ghana. What is it?

"The National Plastic Action Partnerships (NPAPs) initiative is a platform created by the Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP), hosted by the World Economic Forum. The understanding here is that there needs to be co-creation among different stakeholders if we are going to address the plastic pollution challenge.

"So this platform provides an avenue for stakeholders from public, private and civil society, as well as development partners, to come together to leverage their efforts, resources and programming to drive impact on efforts to address plastic pollution.

"It is refreshing to highlight that there are a number of these NPAPs in different parts of the world. So, moving from Africa, you have some in Latin America and Asia as well. These platforms provide an avenue for stakeholders to engage and also work together to address plastic pollution.

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"I see three opportunities for NPAPs going forward: one is that the treaty calls for the development of what we call national action plans. And the GPAP model can support countries to develop a baseline analysis of the plastic flows through the economy, and projections into the future. That leads to the development of national action roadmaps, which set priorities, targets and recommendations on how stakeholders can work together. I believe this methodology or body of work could provide a good foundation for countries to build on to develop their national action plans.

"Conversations are happening around what these national action plans would include, but I believe this methodology, in terms of the baseline and the roadmap that has been developed by GPAP with different countries, could provide a basis for that.

"Secondly, the treaty also talks about the need for stakeholder engagement and for stakeholders to work together. And, given that the NPAP platform provides this inclusive opportunity and avenue for stakeholders to engage, I believe countries could leverage this mechanism to build on stakeholder engagement and ensure all nations are aligned and working in one direction.

"The third one is awareness creation, which is a very important element of the treaty as it calls for more awareness around plastic pollution to incentivize behaviour change. And one impact area of GPAP is behaviour change. There is a body of work on this area, so countries can use the learnings and insights on behaviour change to support them in creating awareness around that."

Discover

What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

How optimistic are you about the Plastics Treaty?

"I believe there will be an agreement on a treaty. But the question is, what kind of treaty are we going to agree on? Is it a treaty that pushes for a bare minimum in terms of addressing plastic pollution, or a treaty that calls for robust and ambitious actions that will encourage countries to adopt significant targets to ensure that we are reducing plastic pollution?

"At INC-3, we had a stalemate, as many will call it, in terms of different countries having different opinions about the life cycle of plastics. But I believe this presents a unique opportunity between now and INC-5, to increase collaboration and engagement between the different countries to ensure they align their positions and interests.

"There is a need for inter-sessional work to guarantee that different groups and relevant stakeholders are brought together between INCs to discuss some of the topical issues people require clarity on, or where there are disagreements and concerns. I believe that once these activities are set in motion, we will get to a point where the countries come up with a robust, practical and ambitious treaty.

"My message to the negotiators is this: the world is looking to you to come up with a treaty to address this challenge that has been with us for some time now.

"I believe they are very conscious they can't afford to let billions of people down across the world, and that the treaty developed will include provisions that ensure we are making efforts and strides to end plastic pollution, including in the marine environment.

"The World Economic Forum’s Global Plastic Action Partnership is a multi-stakeholder platform that brings together governments, businesses and civil society to translate commitments to reduce plastic pollution into concrete action. Find out more at globalplasticaction.org."

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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