The oil industry’s plastic boom is the biggest threat to the UN’s Plastics Treaty

For the first time, UN member states adopted a resolution for a plastic treaty to end plastic pollution. But the fight for a clean environment is not over. In fact, it has only just begun.

A historic event on the plastics agenda happened last week when the UN Environment Assembly – UNEA5.2 – adopted a mandate for a global and legally binding plastics treaty. The first of its kind. The agreement has been compared to the Paris Climate Agreement, adopted in 2015, which set a global framework to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to 1.5℃. 

What is also groundbreaking about this agreement, besides being the first of its kind, is that it will not only be a binding framework on plastics as marine litter. It takes a full plastic life cycle approach, from the extraction of raw materials for plastics (such as oil and gas), production, consumption, waste management to collection and containment in nature. 

It has given an intergovernmental negotiating committee the colossal task that by 2024, they must reach a consensus on key issues such as how to tackle the growing production of single-use plastics. Plastics compound is made from oil and gas and is a rapid growth market in petrochemical hubs such as the United States, China, Saudi Arabia, and Japan.

The lines have been drawn, but players are pulling in opposite directions

The framework for the deal is now in place, but the road to a finalized plastics treaty will not be easy. On the contrary. For although countries have committed to finding a solution to end plastic pollution, it does not give a clear direction on how. The big battle will be overproduction and whether countries are willing to impose global regulations, rather than leaving each country the flexibility to solely develop national solutions that work within their national borders. 

“This issue of plastic production is becoming a minefield,” says Anne Aittomaki, strategic director of Plastic Change to Reuters. She predicts that the next two years of negotiations will be very tough, and the issue of plastic production will be one of the most “complex” issues for negotiators to overcome and agree on. But without a global framework that legally commits countries to reductions in single-use plastic production, any real impact and attempts to stop plastic pollution will be doubtful. 

On the one hand, governments are under pressure to curb the proliferation of single-use plastics, everything from packaging to coffee cups. An IPSOS survey released last month found that three in four people support a ban on single-use plastics, with the EU and some developing countries pushing for restrictions on plastic production.

But on the other side, the “Big Oil” industry (the six or seven largest listed oil and gas companies), the petrochemical industry, and plastic-producing countries such as the United States, China, Japan, and Saudi Arabia are reluctant or pushing to avoid a cap on plastic production. Stakeholders who keep referring to recycling and waste collection as the solution, rather than recuse and reduce in plastic production.

The game is on – so is the massive pressure 

By 2050, the plastics industry could be accountable for 20% of all oil consumption, according to the UN Environment Programme. Today the number is around 6-8%. Under these projections, marine plastic pollution will quadruple by 2050, some marine species will become extinct and many sensitive ecosystems such as coral reefs and mangrove swamps will be irreparably damaged, according to a recent WWF study

Less than 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled, making it clear that past recycling technologies and investments in technological innovation have failed. “It is naïve to think that recycling alone will help. We need to start with preventive measures first,” EU environment chief Virginijus Sinkevicius told Reuters, adding that he wanted to see restrictions on new plastic production.

The key will therefore be to set global targets and frameworks that all countries commit to, rather than just developing national action plans. In the latter case, there is a real danger that the big plastic players will still be free to continue their increasing production in the major plastic-producing countries. 

At Plastic Change, we already have our eyes on the ball. Last week we celebrated, this week we’ve already got our working gloves on. Together with the International Task Force, made up of member organizations of the Break Free From Plastic movement – of which Plastic Change is a member of the Steering Group – and which is continuously monitoring the UNEA negotiations, the task from now until UNEA6 is to ensure that the content of a global agreement is as ambitious as possible. 

“Now we have to put on our work gloves and, together with our global network, first and foremost strategize to ensure that Big Oil and multinational giants do not weaken the treaty,” concludes Anne Aittomaki. 

This article is partly copied from Reuters published 4.3.2022