UN Plastics Treaty: What can we learn from other international environmental agreements?

Applying lessons from the Montreal Protocol and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will forge an effective Global Plastics Treaty.

refill station
A resident purchases dishwashing liquid at a refill station for household cleaning liquids at a sundries store  in Quezon City in Metro Manila, Philippines. In keeping with the zero waste hierarchy the treaty must prioritise upstream solutions like reuse and reduction. Image: Ezra Acayan

This week from 23 to 29 April, about 170 countries will continue the negotiations for a Global Plastics Treaty to end plastic pollution. Will this international legally binding instrument save future generations from the plastic pollution crisis or will it further enable false solutions? I ask this question because of my experience with two treaties: the Montreal Protocol and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). 

In the 1970s, scientists began warning that certain chemicals were destroying the ozone layer, a protective blanket of gas in our atmosphere 10 to 50 kilometers above us. Without the ozone layer, we would be bombarded by the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation which would cause skin cancers and cataracts, injure wildlife, and reduce agricultural production.

Inexpensive ozone-depleting chemicals called CFCs were everywhere, in household products like hair spray and deodorants, in refrigerators, air conditioners, cars, foam packaging, etc. Production of CFCs grew from about 150,000 tonnes in 1960 to over 1.2 million tonnes in 1989.

Images of the hole in the ozone layer shocked negotiators into action. The Montreal Protocol passed and took effect in 1989. At first, the Protocol required a 50 per cent reduction of ozone-depleting chemicals by 1999, but when scientists reported that this was not enough, countries amended the treaty to require complete elimination by 2000, later advancing the total phase-out date to 1996. Other ozone-depleting substances were also later added.

The Montreal Protocol encouraged global investments in alternatives and provided funds to help industries convert and to pay for royalties to make new technologies accessible. Today, the concentrations of the most important ozone-depleting chemicals have dropped dramatically and the ozone hole is diminishing. Thanks to an effective treaty, severe health and environmental impacts were averted and a near complete recovery of the ozone layer is expected by around 2050.

Disinformation about climate change involves the fossil fuel industry and industry-linked private foundations funding contrarian scientists, conservative think-tanks, and “astroturf” groups disguised as grassroots groups but created by industry.

The Philippines signed the Montreal Protocol in 1988 and ratified it in 1991. The country benefited from technology transfer investment projects in 48 major industries, eliminating 1,300 tonnes of ozone-depleting chemicals by 1998 with financial support from a special fund under the treaty.

By participating in phase-out projects and ecolabelling, our private sector saw increases in product sales as customers preferred non-CFC products. Now the Philippines is phasing out the last batch of ozone-depleting chemicals ahead of schedule to everyone’s benefit.

Let us compare this with another treaty, the UNFCCC. 

As Filipinos, we know the impacts of climate change since we, more than many countries, bear the brunt of extreme heat waves, increased frequency and intensity of typhoons and floods, and loss of coastal areas. Other parts of the world are seeing the melting of glaciers, massive bleaching of coral reefs, more wildfires, longer periods of drought, sea level rise, etc.

Scientists have long known about the role of human-made greenhouse gases which trap heat near the earth’s surface and drive catastrophic climate impacts. 154 countries including the Philippines signed the Climate Change Convention in 1992 and it entered into force in 1994.

But unlike the Montreal Protocol, the Climate Change Convention did not lead to any decrease in greenhouse gases. Instead, global greenhouse gases continue to rise unabated year after year. Unlike the rejuvenation of the ozone layer, global warming is getting worse, with the year 2023 as the hottest year on record and the ten hottest years since 1850 all occurring in the last decade.

We need to learn the lessons of the two treaties to forge an effective Global Plastics Treaty.

First, the Montreal Protocol had as its ultimate objective the elimination of ozone depleting substances. The Climate Change Convention called for stabilising greenhouse gases without any commitment to their reduction.

Second, the Montreal Protocol embraced the precautionary principle, setting mandatory timetables to phase out ozone-depleting chemicals. The Climate Change Convention set targets in Kyoto in 1997 but they applied only to a few countries, allowing a free ride for other countries. The 2015 Paris Agreement of the Climate Convention asked all countries to reduce emissions but it opted for purely voluntary national commitments, no legally binding reductions.

Third, the Montreal Protocol’s mandatory phase-out targets led to the elimination of nearly 99per cent of ozone-depleting substances. The 1997 Kyoto targets were set too low and with no timetable. The 2015 Paris Agreement set a goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C to minimise the most extreme and potentially irreversible climate effects. But due to insufficient voluntary national pledges, our planet is on track to reach a disastrous 2.7°C temperature rise this century.

Fourth, recognising that delays would mean deeper cuts in the future, the Montreal Protocol set ambitious targets and early phase-out dates. The Climate Convention squandered much time with ineffective mechanisms so much so that we will likely deplete our entire carbon budget to remain under 1.5°C in about six years.

Fifth, the Montreal Protocol had a carrot-and-stick approach with trade provisions that limited trade only with other signers of the treaty, and the Protocol’s compliance procedures helped countries meet their obligations. The Climate Convention lacks the ability to enforce agreements. Instead it relies on voluntary national contributions and on schemes like carbon credits and offset programmes.

The carbon offset programmes allow polluters to offset their emissions by investing in projects that reduce emissions elsewhere, such as planting trees or protecting forests in developing countries in exchange for carbon credits. Scientific studies indicate that 80 to 94 per cent of the leading carbon offset schemes are worthless.

Benefits are exaggerated, many projects for which polluters take credit would have happened without the carbon offset anyway, most projects are not permanent, and in some cases, the projects made deforestation even worse.

Some carbon market brokers have resold credits multiple times and gamed the system to make a profit, while some countries and corporations are double-counting to make it appear that they are meeting their carbon reduction pledges.

One of the more disturbing features of the offset programmes are the violent evictions of families, especially Indigenous peoples, to make way for forest plantations to be used in the carbon credit market.

The bottom line is that many projects do not work: satellite tracking of carbon levels do not see any differences in projects before and after carbon offsets. Many argue that rules and monitoring of the carbon market need to be strengthened, but we cannot rely on carbon trading to solve the problem.

As one researcher put it, carbon offsets are a cheap way for polluters to continue polluting and are a dangerous diversion from meaningful solutions.

The role of industry in the Montreal Protocol and the Climate Convention also differ. At first, the CFC industry resisted the Montreal Protocol but thanks to consumer pressure, many in industry eventually came on board. The private sector’s cooperation was crucial in innovating and offering alternatives, driving technology advancement and market transformation, hence contributing to the healing of the ozone layer.

In contrast, the fossil fuel industry has used aggressive strategies to discredit climate science, even though their own scientists knew and accurately predicted climate change as far back as 1977 but kept it secret. Two science historians revealed in their book “Merchants of Doubt” that the same contrarian scientists, with ties to industry, who misled the public about the harmful effects of smoking were also engaged in sowing doubt about climate science.

Today, disinformation about climate change involves the fossil fuel industry and industry-linked private foundations funding contrarian scientists, conservative think-tanks, and “astroturf” groups disguised as grassroots groups but created by industry. Their misinformation feeds an echo chamber of right-wing media, social media influencers, bloggers, and politicians, ultimately diffusing into the public sphere. Funding from private foundations to obstruct climate action was estimated at US$2.6 billion from 2003 to 2018.

During the most recent climate change negotiations in December 2023, a record 2,456 fossil fuel lobbyists attended, outnumbering all country delegations except two and exceeding the combined total delegates of the ten most climate vulnerable countries. This outsized influence of industry in climate negotiations makes it easier for the major greenhouse gas polluters to write the rules.

The oil and gas industry, facing shrinking demand for fossil fuels as the world shifts to renewable energy, is now pouring billions into making more plastics. The U.S. alone is spending over US$400 billion on new plastic plants in the U.S., China, and Saudi Arabia.

This will be disastrous for the climate. Soon, my colleagues and I will release our review of a study by a major national laboratory showing that about 75 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions from plastics happen before the polymers are made. The planned surge in plastic production will doom international climate goals.   

To avoid having to reduce plastic production, the oil-producing countries and global plastics industry are focusing on recycling as the solution. With a cumulative global production of plastics between 1950 to 2017 estimated at 9.2 billion tonnes, we cannot recycle our way out of this problem.

While I encourage recycling, it is only as an interim approach. As mentioned, few plastics can be recycled, which is why only 5 per cent to 9 per cent are recycled, and they require more new plastic each time. Moreover, we are now faced with the problem of chemicals in recycled plastics and microplastic emissions from recycling facilities, issues that have yet to be resolved.

An investigative report last February 2024 reviewed internal industry documents and revealed how the oil and plastics industry sold recycling as the solution even while admitting in 1986 that “recycling cannot be considered a permanent solid waste solution.” The industry in the 1980s and 90s needed the public to believe recycling was the solution in order to prevent bans on plastics.

I was still working on plastics in 1988 when Suffolk County, New York became the first local government to ban plastic bags, leading others to propose similar laws. The plastics industry then began a US$50-million-per-year campaign to block regulations by highlighting recycling.

They set up a dozen plastic recycling plants even though we knew at that time that recycling was not economical and no infrastructure even existed to collect plastics. The deception worked: the Suffolk County plastics ban was overturned. After the public got the message to buy more plastics since they could be “recycled”, all recycling plants were closed down.

Following the same strategy, industry lobbyists are now promoting “advanced recycling” or chemical recycling, breaking down plastic waste into its chemical building blocks or into basic chemicals to make new plastic, other chemicals, or fuel to be burned. Chemical recycling uses high heat treatment, enzymes, or chemicals.

Processes that use high heat, such as pyrolysis and gasification, are energy intensive, creating significant greenhouse gases and toxic by-products. These expensive systems need a regular supply of waste to operate, hence promoting more plastic consumption. Industry-sponsored studies showing the supposed benefits of these technologies use selective scenarios and do not disclose all underlying assumptions.   

Other chemical recycling technologies have only been done in the lab or lack data on environmental impacts, chemical usage, toxic by-products, output quality, etc. to allow independent evaluation. Many technologies work on one type of plastic in clean condition and would be impractical or very expensive to apply in real world conditions of dirty and mixed plastic waste.

Despite huge investments and many failed projects in the last few decades, most chemical recycling technologies will probably not operate at scale around the world on real-world plastic waste. Perhaps a few costly technologies may work with hard-to-recycle plastics under limited conditions in the future. Today, however, advanced recycling perpetuates false solutions and is a diversion from real solutions.

What do we need for an ambitious and effective Global Plastics Treaty?

At current rates, plastic production will double within 20 years, and plastic waste going into the environment could triple by 2060. There is no other way around it: we need to reduce production of primary plastic polymers. When you are drowning in a bathtub, it makes no sense trying to plug up all the leaks; you need to start turning off the faucet.

The approach of the treaty must be comprehensive, encompassing the full life cycle of plastics, which means that all stages of a product’s life, beginning with raw material extraction to pre-processing, manufacturing, storage, distribution, use, reuse, and end of life.

We need to have binding global reduction targets under mandatory timetables without free riders, and those targets must be consistent with the Paris Agreements’ goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C.

The treaty must eliminate problematic plastics and hazardous chemicals in plastics using a phase-out regime that prioritizes first the most problematic, avoidable, and unnecessary plastic products and chemicals, while giving more time, financial assistance, and technical support to countries that would otherwise suffer severe social and economic hardship.

A safety assessment means that hazard criteria should be applied and those that leach chemicals that are known to cause cancer, genetic mutations, reproductive harm, etc. should be phased out sooner.

Sustainability criteria mean that products and chemicals should be evaluated across environmental, social, and economic dimensions, including resource consumption, carbon and other emissions, and impact on land use.

Essentiality is a practical criterion which means that phase-out targets should include time-bound exemptions if an item is essential for health, safety, or is critical for the functioning of society and if technically and economically feasible alternatives do not yet exist.

Transparency is a governance mechanism that requires disclosure of information essential to assessing safety and sustainability. It means that the treaty must include reporting, monitoring, traceability, and labelling requirements.

An independent science body, geographically representative, free of conflicts of interest and operating transparently, is needed to advise the treaty’s governing body. The treaty itself must be flexible and dynamic, like the Montreal Protocol, allowing adjustments as scientific data and understanding grows.

In keeping with the zero waste hierarchy and the adage that prevention is better than cure, the treaty must prioritise upstream solutions (prevention, reduction, development of safer and sustainable alternatives, product re-design, reuse, refurbishment, etc.), while improving programmes downstream, i.e., after waste is generated (e.g., waste management, recycling, extended producer responsibility, dealing with legacy pollution, etc.). The treaty should avoid greenwashing and false solutions.

There are equity principles that should be reflected in the treaty. Common but differentiated responsibility means that wealthier countries should shoulder a proportionately greater burden in solving the problem, providing financial and technical support to developing countries especially those most impacted.

Another important equity principle is a “just transition”. It recognises that the impacts of plastic pollution are unevenly distributed. It recognises that the impacts of plastic pollution are unevenly distributed and vulnerable groups should not bear the burden of transition.

Industry should get ahead of the treaty by developing and shifting to safer and more sustainable plastic chemicals, plastic products, alternative materials, technologies, and services. 

Already, groups like the international Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty, comprised of manufacturers, retailers, and other firms, have taken a position supporting an ambitious, legally binding treaty and a transition to safer plastics, a phase-out of single-use plastics, and an end to plastic pollution. They support prioritising restrictions and phase-outs, reuse, product design requirements, extended producer responsibility, and waste management.

Under the Global Commitment and Plastic Pact network, more than 1,000 businesses and organizations have committed to eliminate unnecessary plastics, innovate plastic design for safe reuse and recycling, and build a circular economy to keep plastics out of the environment.

They set ambitious targets to ensure 100 per cent reusable, recyclable, or compostable plastic packaging; decrease virgin plastics; increase post-consumer recycled content in packaging; move towards reuse models; and eliminate problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging.

The road ahead for negotiations is difficult. There is a divide between oil-producing countries, informally called the low ambition or least ambitious countries, and the High Ambition Coalition comprised of 64 countries plus the European Union committed to an ambitious treaty with legally binding global rules that end plastic pollution by 2040. Although specific country positions are complex, I will try to simplify the general positions of the two groups.

The low ambition countries want only voluntary country-determined reduction contributions and a treaty focused on waste management and recycling. 

The High Ambition Coalition has three strategic goals: restrain plastic production and consumption to sustainable levels, enable a circular economy for plastics that protects health and the environment, and achieve environmentally sound management and recycling of plastic waste.

The key factor in the success of the Montreal Protocol was public pressure. Consumers need to demand for safer and more sustainable products from industry. Governments need to hear from people that they want an ambitious and effective treaty, with binding reduction targets and the elimination of problematic products and chemicals.

As a society and as individuals, we need to end our addiction to plastics and live lives that regenerate the earth and all its life forms, instead of laying waste to it for generations to come. The negotiation train is rumbling in the distance and will sweep us all in its wake, whether we like it or not. The train could bring us to a better future or to a worse one. Our actions now could determine which one.

Dr. Jorge Emmanuel is trained as a chemist, chemical engineer, environmental scientist, and public health professional. He was Chief Technical Advisor for Global Environmental Facility Projects of the United Nations Development Program in New York. 

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