8 June 2023

ZSL’s Marine Projects Manager, Shauna Young, and Senior Policy Specialist, Bethan Laughlin reflect on the most recent round of United Nations negotiations - taking place to create a formal Treaty to tackle plastic pollution 

Plastic pollution is one of the three interlinked planetary crises that we face: climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.  

Its negative impacts on people and planet are evident across the whole plastics supply chain; starting with the initial fossil fuel extraction needed to make it, right through to mismanaged plastic waste polluting the environment at the end of its life cycle. The science around the impacts of plastic pollution on biodiversity and human health are of increasing concern.  

What is being done to tackle plastic pollution? 

Last week in Paris, negotiators from 170 countries came together to develop a legally binding treaty to end plastic pollution and mitigate its impacts on the marine environment.  

This was the second meeting of the International Negotiating Committee (INC), which is scheduled to convene five times between December 2022 - November 2024, across Uruguay, France, Kenya, Canada and Korea, to co-create a first-of-its-kind United Nations (UN) Global Plastics Treaty.   

The second meeting (INC2) took place from 29 May - 2 June 2023 at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris. We attended alongside other experts and advocates from across civil society, NGOs, scientific communities, youth leaders and indigenous groups. Across the week our work focused on championing the need for stronger commitments around biodiversity and equitable solutions to protect those most impacted by plastic pollution. 

sea grass
Bethan Laughlin and Shauna Young at INC-2 negotiations for a Global Plastics Treaty

Why must solutions to plastic pollution be community-led? 

The communities of small islands and developing states (SIDs) steward much of the world’s precious biodiversity, but sadly they also suffer some of the worst impacts of climate change and plastic pollution. As such, community-led conservation is imperative to building sustainable solutions that are locally appropriate and respond to island needs - aligning with ZSL’s mission to build a world where both people and wildlife can thrive

It is therefore essential that local voices from island communities are at the forefront of the negotiations to ensure that the obligations within the final treaty are truly fit for purpose - protecting both people and planet.  

A number of barriers have prevented this from happening already. A last minute travel support fund was launched by the UN one month before INC2 to diversify participation in Paris, and yet many people fell through the cracks of the criteria and did not qualify for financial support. For those who could travel to be there in person, complications around room capacity saw many refused entry into the negotiation chamber, and instead spent the week campaigning outside the doors of UNESCO. Whilst some observer interventions were indeed granted during the latter half of the week, and inspiring contributions heard from both indigenous and youth representatives, these opportunities were capped at just 2-3 minutes and granted to observers late at night, after member states had already made their own submissions. Sadly, this resulted in community voices becoming an add-on, rather than central to informing the Treaty design - an approach which must drastically change ahead of the next round of negotiations. 

Local people practicing Sustainable Fishing in a Locally Managed Marine Area
Marine debris on a beach
© Dan Bayley

ZSL has over a decade’s experience in community-led conservation, working with islanders to better understand and reduce the impacts of plastic pollution on wildlife and people across the globe. We have played a key role in collaborative projects such as #OneLess, Net-Works(™) (now Coast4C), Project Ocean, and National Geographic’s Sea to Source: Ganges expedition - these are just some examples of the work that has informed our understanding of the impacts of plastic on marine wildlife and ecosystems, how plastic waste moves through our systems and where it accumulates in the environment.  

Our attendance at INC2 in Paris last week was therefore a valuable opportunity to see how effectively both biodiversity and local voices are being integrated into the Treaty negotiations - and what areas we can offer further support in to ensure this happens. 

What progress has been made for addressing plastic pollution? 

The overarching goal of the Paris negotiation (INC2) was for member states to agree a “mandate” for the creation of a first draft of a UN Global Plastics Treaty ahead of INC3 in December 2023.  

Without a mandate for a first draft, the work of the INC would come to a standstill - and with the scale of plastic production and consumption expected to double by 2050 if nothing changes, - any delay would be highly damaging to communities and ecosystems. 

Representatives sitting in hall at UN INC2 negotiations in Paris
A seagrass meadow
© Benjamin Jones, Stockholm University

As such, a deep-dive into the detail of what the treaty could contain was expected to be the crux of last week’s discussions. Unfortunately, the first three days were lost to procedural matters - namely a disagreement between member states over the proposed voting structure. This led to a deadlock, meaning it was the evening of day three before substantive matters were discussed leading to frustration amongst delegates.  

Despite these delays, following a series of very late night deliberations and compromises, a mandate was successfully passed in the late hours of the last night of the negotiations. Whilst just one step in a long process, this is a major win, as it sets the wheels in motion for a Global Plastics Treaty to become reality. With this mandate, the UN Secretariat can now work towards developing a first draft, which will be negotiated at INC3 in Kenya. This draft will contain a series of proposed legally binding core obligations based on the statements given at INC2, and will be reviewed and - hopefully - increasingly strengthened over the three remaining negotiations in the final 12 month period of this process.  

Although INC2 resulted in just 1.5 days of substantive discussion, there were some significant moments of agreement and shared thinking across member states. For example, there was broad agreement on the importance of ending the issue of microplastic pollution, the importance of regulating the chemicals used in plastic production and how infrastructure can be invested in to enabling better waste management and recycling for all countries, not just the global north.  

ZSL Team collecting marine debris on beach
school of fish

Putting nature at the heart of tackling plastic  

ZSL can now focus on ensuring that addressing biodiversity loss is key to these discussions - something which has been lacking from Treaty discussions to date. We are working to restore wildlife across the globe - to do this, we need to see more emphasis on reducing single-use plastic production and action to reduce the use of toxic chemicals in plastic, which can have long-lasting impacts on the health of marine species and ecosystems.  

Our experience of working with small islands and developing states has demonstrated the need for equitable and tailored solutions for developing nations. Prohibitive commitments, and ‘one size fits all’ bans, must be accompanied by suitable, affordable, and accessible alternatives so as to protect vulnerable communities from further negative impacts. It is also important that plastic materials are not replaced by equally detrimental alternatives.  

Everyone can take action against plastic pollution, but significant action is needed from plastic producers and country leaders. For the Treaty to be effective, ambition to incentivise action and hold those undertaking bad practice to account will be vital.  

The scientific community must play a key role in the process to ensure that the core obligations of a new Global Plastics Treaty are founded on robust evidence, and that future implementation is monitored, evaluated and reported on effectively in the years ahead. At ZSL, we will play our part by increasing the focus on biodiversity and local communities to secure an ambitious science-based Global Plastics Treaty that protects both people and planet. 

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Climate change and human activity have pushed our precious planet to its limit, causing the devastating loss of so many habitats and species. From lab to field, hands on and behind the scenes, we’re leading the future of conservation, shaping agendas and influencing change to support better life, health and living for people and wildlife.

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