Headline: Protecting the Marine Environment: An International Treaty on Plastic Pollution

Marine plastic pollution poses a threat to the marine environment and negatively affects human health. An international treaty is currently being negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) to provide a comprehensive global legal framework addressing plastic pollution, including in the marine environment. Scientists within the Ocean Governance research group at RIFS are closely following the negotiation processes and exploring the role of the future treaty in ocean governance.

An international treaty on plastics - including in the marine environment

Marine plastic pollution occurs due to human activities both on land and at sea. This includes the production and disposal of plastics, as well as its use in fishing, shipping, road transportation (e.g. vehicle tyres), agricultural activities, the food and beverage industry, the packaging industry, and tourism. Between 4.8 and 12.7 million tons of plastic enter the ocean annually, with land-based activities being the primary source of plastic marine litter. The negative effects range from biodiversity loss, to harms to human health and the environment, including entanglement and ingestion of plastic marine litter. A healthy ocean is essential to provide ecosystem services such as food, oxygen production, and climate regulation.

A global response requires that the full life cycle of plastics is considered to effectively address the problem at its sources. This includes the production, transport, and use of plastics, in addition to sound waste management and recycling. In addition, different subgroups of plastics, such as primary microplastics, including unintentionally released microplastics, such as from textiles and tyres, add to the complexity of the problem, as they occur throughout different stages of the life. A global response must accordingly address chemical pollutants, acknowledge the problem of legacy plastics, include land- and sea-based sources of plastic pollution, and apply a holistic, transdisciplinary approach. The latter would provide for an inclusive and transformative process through joint knowledge production among academic and non-academic stakeholders towards effectively reducing plastic pollution. 

A comprehensive legal and governance framework: The need for a new international plastics treaty

Building on previous resolutions focussing on marine litter, the 2022 United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) Resolution 5/14 established an intergovernmental negotiating committee (INC) to develop an international legally binding instrument covering the full life cycle of plastics by the end of 2024 over the course of five rounds of negotiations.

Approximately sixty percent of the plastics produced since 1950 has ended up in the natural environment. Land-based plastic pollution enters the seas through rivers, storm water runoff, wind dispersal and littering. The new treaty aims to comprehensively address the plastics problem, since existing instruments currently focus on specific stages of the plastic life cycle or specifically on marine litter, resulting in a fragmented governance landscape, covering only certain governance levels, sectors or stages of the life cycle. For example, at the international level, Annex V of the Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) imposes a ban on the disposal of plastic into the sea, addressing sea-based sources of marine plastic pollution. At the regional level, Regional Seas Conventions also aim to address plastic pollution, including from land-based sources. At EU-level, the Plastics Strategy aims to reduce marine litter by improving the recyclability of plastics, tackling single-use plastics and plastic waste and promoting biobased and compostable plastics, among others. Furthermore, national plastic bans, such as for single-use plastics and plastic bags have been established in many countries to prevent these from entering the seas. While various measures exist, coordination, including at the international level, could harmonise multiple efforts.

A brief overview of the lead-up to the treaty negotiations

Prior to the start of the treaty negotiations in 2022, an expert group was established by UNEA in 2017 to explore options for global actions to tackle marine litter and plastic pollution. In 2019 a majority of States at the UNEA meeting agreed to work towards establishing a global treaty against plastics in the ocean. Parallel to this, a group of 29 global companies launched a business manifesto in support of such a treaty. By 2022, 156 States had declared their support for an international plastics treaty, leading to the adoption by UN Member States of UNEA resolution 5/14 in March 2022. In addition to this, together with 18 other States, Norway and Rwanda launched the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution by 2040 (HAC), of which the EU is also a member. The HAC covers all regions worldwide and promotes an international plastics treaty with binding provisions along the entire life cycle, not only to reduce plastic production and consumption, but also to eliminate and restrict unnecessary, avoidable or problematic plastic products, as well as setting clear targets, among other aspects. This also includes restrictions on certain hazardous chemicals and the introduction of bans on problematic plastic products that are difficult to recycle.

The treaty negotiations

In the wake of UNEA resolution 5/14, the first session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-1) took place from 28 November to 2 December 2022 in Punta del Este, Uruguay. Preceded by regional consultations and a multi-stakeholder forum, the negotiations brought together more than 2,300 delegates from 160 countries in an effort to find common ground on the scope and implementation of the future treaty. As a result, the Committee requested the INC Secretariat to provide a draft outline of options for elements to be covered by the instrument ahead of the second round of negotiations. This outline included core obligations, control measures, voluntary approaches, means of implementation, as well as legally binding and voluntary measures.

The second session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-2), which took place in Paris, France from 29 May to 2 June 2023, mainly discussed procedural matters, as some delegations insisted on voting by consensus. Despite these procedural scuffles, the national delegations agreed on a mandate for developing a zero draft of the treaty, as the basis for the third round of negotiations. While many countries support provisions at source, limiting the primary plastic production, the third session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3), which took place in Nairobi, Kenya from 13-19 November 2023 was stalled by a small number of like-minded countries, who favour tackling plastic pollution with downstream measures, such as waste treatment and recycling. While the mismanagement of plastic waste is due to a lack of waste collection, dumping and littering activities, as well as uncontrolled landfills, the problem is rooted in plastic production and consumption, which results in downstream plastic pollution.

Among the key outcomes of INC-3 was the mandate to prepare a revised draft based on the compilations of discussions and written submissions during the negotiations. The revised draft will provide the basis for next round of negotiations at INC-4, which is scheduled to take place from 21 to 30 April 2024 in Ottawa, Canada. This will be followed by INC-5, marking the last round of negotiations, scheduled to take place in Busan, South Korea from 25 November to 01 December 2024. 

The negotiation process brought forward various State interests and positions that have manifested in different groupings and coalitions. For instance, the Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC) support upstream provisions to reduce and prevent plastic production at source. The African Group emphasizes the need for the treaty to include provisions for legacy plastics, comprising plastics that are already in the (marine) environment and cannot be reused or recycled. This contrasts with the position of the petrochemical industry, which has been present during the negotiations, including as members of national delegations, and which favours a primary focus on mechanical and chemical recycling through the introduction of recycling quotas as a solution to plastic waste. Environmental organisations, in turn, criticize this one-sided focus on waste management and scientists emphasize the need for the treaty to cover ecosystems that are affected by plastic pollution. Differences can also be observed between States favouring a top-down approach and countries advocating for a voluntary approach based on national action plans and countries’ capacities, similar to the Paris Agreement.

Key challenges for the negotiations remain, including the need to find common ground among States on core legally binding obligations and the level of ambition that should be reflected in the treaty. Due to the lack of agreement on a mandate for intersessional work ahead of INC-4, such intermediate discussions will not take place. Open questions also remain in relation to finding a suitable financial mechanism, agreeing on how the future instrument will be implemented, including reporting processes and common definitions, such as problematic and avoidable plastic polymers and products, microplastics and circularity. These questions will need to be answered to advance the draft text at INC-4 and continue the ambitious timeline of the treaty negotiations. 

Our work – rethinking ocean governance

The way that governments, communities, industries and other stakeholders interact and govern ocean activities, through national and international law, custom, tradition and culture, as well as the institutions and processes created by them, is a key focus of our research at RIFS. A team of interdisciplinary researchers of the Ocean Governance research group is engaged in a number of associated projects to develop new knowledge and solutions for key sustainability challenges. These include two EU-funded projects focusing on the topic of marine pollution:

  • The Source to Seas Zero Pollution 2023 (SOS-ZEROPOL2030) project, a Horizon Europe project, aims to develop a holistic, stakeholder-led zero pollution framework that will guide the EU towards zero pollution in European seas by 2030. The project aims to characterise existing barriers to successful pollution reduction policies and identify best practices for effective measures, engage with key stakeholders to co-identify policy opportunities, as well as co-develop a practical roadmap to guide the transition to clean European seas. The project is coordinated by the University College Cork (UCC) with nine partners across Europe, including RIFS in Potsdam, Germany. RIFS will lead the development of a Strategic Zero Pollution Framework to outline a governance process to prevent and reduce the pollution of seas and achieve the goal of zero pollution. 
  • The Multi-layer Governance Performance of Marine Policies (PermaGov) project includes a case study on marine plastic pollution in the Baltic Sea and in relation to the EU Green Deal themes of zero pollution and the circular economy. PermaGov will analyse the way in which the Regional Sea Conventions combat marine litter, including cross-sectoral and cross-boundary cooperation and monitoring.
  • Other research of the RIFS Ocean Governance research group seeks to advance the EU’s approaches to marine policy and governance for delivering the EU Green Deal for European Seas (CrossGov) and accelerating the uptake of ecosystem-based management (MarineSABRES), to establish good governance approaches for ocean-based negative emission technologies (OceanNETs), and to support regional ocean governance approaches and practices (Marine Regions Forum). 

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