Journey Towards a Global Plastics Treaty: GAIA at the Forefront of History

By Claire Arkin, Global Communications Lead

It was a beautiful spring day in Paris– the sun was shining, the birds were chirping, and GAIA members from far and wide converged at the historic UNESCO building to advocate for the  ambitious global plastics treaty that could change the course of history. 

What is the Global Plastics Treaty?

Thanks to the tireless work of the #breakfreefromplastic movement and GAIA members around the world, last March, the United Nations Environment Assembly decided on a mandate to create the world’s first plastics treaty, a legally binding international law aimed at reducing plastic pollution worldwide, covering the full life-cycle of plastic. This is a historic step forward in the fight against plastic pollution, and would not have been possible without a diverse movement of waste pickers, frontline community activists, and zero waste advocates demanding systemic change.

However, there’s still a long road ahead–there will be a series of meetings (called Intergovernmental Negotiating Committees or INCs) through the end of 2024 during which the treaty will take shape. GAIA and our allies will be present for the entirety of the negotiations to make sure our issues are represented, but it will take continuing pressure from people all over the world to ensure that we get a strong treaty that meets the scale of the crisis. 

Such a treaty must include plastic reduction targets, eradicate toxics, exclude false solutions like incineration, chemical “recycling” and plastic credits, scale up zero waste solutions such as reuse, and center a just transition for waste pickers and other groups at the frontlines of the crisis.

GAIA Members Demand a Seat at the Table

Right from day one we put Global South voices front and center in a media event where members spoke powerfully about how communities in the Global South are both on the frontlines of the plastic pollution crisis and at the forefront of the solutions–and therefore must be recognized as key stakeholders in the negotiations. 

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) sent the opposite message when, two weeks from when negotiations were set to start and GAIA members had planned to fly hundreds of miles at great expense–it announced that it would only allow entry to one person per civil society organization, essentially slamming the door in the faces of Indigenous leaders, Global South activists, youth, scientists, and NGOs. 

After civil society staged an action outside UNESCO, UNEP changed its tune and observers were allowed greater access into the building, once we made clear that our voices could not be ignored. 

“Restricted and limited access issues disproportionately impact low-income, worse affected frontline and fenceline communities from the Global South who have the highest stake in the ongoing negotiations for an international agreement against plastic pollution.This is clear violation of UNEP’s own rules for stakeholder participation.” -Arpita Bhagat, Plastic Policy Officer for the GAIA Asia Pacific region

Plastics treaty procrastination

For the first two days, progress was held hostage by a small handful of large oil and plastic-producing countries, who raised procedural issues to delay discussions on the actual content and have veto power over treaty text by advocating for consensus only, with no opportunity for voting if consensus cannot be reached. 

This bucks the standard set in other international negotiations like the successful Minamata Convention on mercury, and essentially allows a single country to further delay or even completely block the international community’s ability to get a strong treaty over the finish line.  After two days of time-wasting, the countries finally temporarily agreed on kicking the can down the road on that debate, meaning that this issue will cause further delays at future INCs. 

However there were some bright spots on the horizon, as some countries stood up to the bullying from the small cadre of obstructionist member states, most notably Mexico and Senegal. 

Industry influence on the rise

INC-2 hosted at least 190 industry lobbyists, who used their access and infinite resources to undermine calls for plastic reduction by promoting tech-fixes like chemical ‘recycling,’ and plastic credits, while, fenceline communities, waste pickers, Indigenous peoples, youth, and other members of civil society most impacted by plastic pollution had very limited opportunities to be heard.

A common refrain heard in negotiations was that of “circular economy”– however that phrase is in danger of industry co-optation to move the conversation towards plastic recycling and away from reduction and reuse. While recycling has its place, plastic is inherently a non-circular material, so a circular economy must mean a shift toward other safer, more reusable materials.

One of the most worrisome false narratives that the plastics industry is peddling is that the plastic waste “trade” that has been polluting Global South communities for years should continue to grow–that this waste colonialism is somehow good for developing countries’ economies, and can be  “chemically recycled” and subsidized through plastic credits.

 In reality, these kinds of schemes lead to more waste dumped in the backyards of Global South communities, more plastic burned in cement kilns, more polluted air entering the lungs of our children, and more plastic production imperiling our climate. GAIA members will continue to fight back against industry influence at the INC’s, and demand that Member States represent the people most impacted by plastic pollution, not the very industry that is profiting from it.

People power for a plastics treaty!

Indigenous leaders from around the world gathered at a self-led INC-2 event, Native Nations Rising, to expose plastic pollution as colonialism in another form, and send an important message to leaders that we are not apart from nature, we ARE nature.

As Juressa Lee of the Te Uri o Tai, Ngāti Rangi, Tupapa, Ngatangiia tribes said, “My peoples have been living with the land and water and air for millennia. It is circular because it is restorative and regenerative. Plastics are not circular. Let the Global Plastics Treaty reflect this reality.

Despite the attempts to shut us out, we made sure our voices were heard. Our own Anna Rocha, GAIA’s Plastic Policy Director, delivered a statement at plenary calling for a reduction of plastic production and a rejection of false solutions. The waste picker delegation was in full force in Paris demanding a just transition, to ensure that the historic debt the world owes waste pickers is reflected in the final treaty. 

“Ending plastic pollution cannot happen without us, and this treaty negotiation process has to center our voices and expertise to achieve a Just transition towards that goal,” said John Chweya of Kenya National Waste Pickers Welfare Association.

The Path to INC-3

While the first two days of the conference were dispiriting, at the end of the conference Member States passed a mandate to develop the “zero draft text” of the treaty, or essentially the rough draft that will become the basis of negotiations at INC-3. The Secretariat also expressed a commitment to ensuring that the next INC venue will be able to accommodate growing interest from civil society to bear witness to and intervene in the negotiations process, to hopefully avoid the access issues at this INC. 

But while the process is moving forward, the threat of further blocking around rules of procedure looms over INC-3, and we may expect to see these and similar delay and derail tactics slowing down the march towards a plastic treaty that the world so desperately needs. However, GAIA members and allies will congregate at INC-3 in Nairobi, Kenya in November more determined than ever to secure a systemic response to the plastic overproduction crisis and its contribution to climate chaos, biodiversity collapse, societal inequities, and the imperiling of our planet. 

Learn more and see how you can get involved by visiting our webpage.