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Road to Busan for a Plastic-free Future

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Road to Busan for a Plastic-free Future

Asia-Pacific countries could prove critical to ensuring the treaty addresses not only waste management, but the root issue of plastic production.

Road to Busan for a Plastic-free Future
Credit: Depositphotos

The Fourth Meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-4) to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution ended on April 29. A year and a half into the process, beginning with the first INC in November 2022 in Uruguay, time is ticking for a global plastics treaty.

INC-2 in Paris and INC-3 in Nairobi last year were spent on discussing rules of procedure and did not advance into substantial negotiations on the actual text of the future multilateral instrument. Before coming into INC-4 in Ottawa, the Revised Zero Draft of the text had been circulated for the negotiations. The aim is to enact a treaty by mid-next year through a Ministerial Meeting either in Senegal, Peru, Ecuador, or Rwanda.

Aside from the United Nations member states, observers – scientists, youth activists, civil society organizations, etc. –  have been participating actively in the process. The International Alliance of Waste Pickers, the Indigenous’ Peoples Group, and others are voicing their concerns through plenary intervention statements, advocating to member state delegations, and public campaigning. For example, the Scientists’ Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty (of which I am part) submitted interventions during the plenary, with the last one highlighting the need for independent science and reiterating the call for reducing plastic production.

On the other side of the fence are industry lobbyists. The Center for International Environmental Law’s analysis of the UNEP list of INC-4 participants revealed that 196 lobbyists for the fossil fuel and chemical industry registered to attend. That’s seven times greater than either the Scientists’ Coalition for An Effective Plastic Treaty or the Indigenous Peoples Caucus. It also represent a 37 percent increase in industry lobbyists compared to INC-3 held six months ago.

During the INC-4, GAIA Asia Pacific’s Arpita Bhagat flagged the “promotion of industry-controlled and largely unregulated Extended Producer Responsibility and plastic credits by entities like the World Bank, Verra, Plastic Credits Exchange and many more.” She noted, “Investigative reports have exposed plastic credits as a greenwashing scheme that exacerbates the plastic problem by burning plastic in cement kilns.” Southeast Asia and South Asia have been at the receiving end of these greenwashing mechanisms and market-based solutions, being pushed through by the industry.

Industry efforts extend beyond lobbyists to influence government delegations. During the INC-4 process, the initial negotiations through different contact groups and subgroups were slowed down by spoiler countries. As the Break Free From Plastic movement emphasized, “a small group of polymer-and-plastics-producing countries, such as Saudi Arabia, India, Kuwait, and Qatar, tried to slow down the process by introducing bracketed texts (i.e. meaning not yet agreed upon).” This was done in an apparent bid to reduce the scope of the proposed treaty to a mere issue of waste management and not address production of plastics.

Peru and Rwanda first presented a proposal for intersessional work (meaning a session or sessions prior to the INC-5 in Busan, South Korea, in November 2024 to gain agreement on important issues) particularly focused on primary plastic polymers (PPP) or virgin plastics. True to the spirit of UNEA Resolution 5/14, the proposal aimed to reduce the global production of PPP to 40 percent of 2025 levels by 2040. On the last day of the negotiations, several countries launched the Bridge to Busan Declaration on Plastic Polymers to rally parties in support of keeping the provision for addressing PPP alive in the treaty text and building momentum for the fifth round of negotiations in Busan.

Together with Fiji and Malawi, the Philippines has unequivocally provided support to the Rwanda-Peru resolution in the plenary on April 28. It has also signed the Bridge to Busan Declaration. In the run-up to Busan, if the Philippines is really serious in showing its leadership in the plastics treaty negotiations, it can do so by joining the High Ambition Coalition, a group of countries “committed to develop an ambitious international legally binding instrument based on a comprehensive and circular approach that ensures urgent action and effective interventions along the full lifecycle of plastics.”

Although far from being holistic, the Bridge to Busan Declaration should have been a powerful statement that U.N. member states are serious in combating plastic pollution. In the end, compromises were made with countries like the United States and United Kingdom, which eventually lent their support for intersessional work despite remaining ambiguous on the issue of PPP. Along with other developed countries, they did not sign the Bridge to Busan Declaration.

A comprehensive global treaty that tackles chemicals of concern identified by science, particularly primary plastic polymers, is an impetus toward stopping plastic pollution where it begins – which is at the extraction stage. By doing this, the global plastic treaty negotiation process creates an opportunity to reduce the global dispersal of chemicals, mitigate the negative impacts of plastics on human health and the environment, and protect vulnerable communities, especially in the Global South.

The world is watching and citizens, especially impacted communities, are hopeful for a global plastics treaty that will address the harms that plastic causes to communities across its entire life cycle.

Guest Author

Jed Alegado

Jed Alegado is a Ph.D. candidate at The Australian National University in Canberra. He has worked with non-profit organizations and environmental movements in the Asia-Pacific region in the areas of advocacy, campaigns, and communications. He also teaches undergraduate and postgraduate courses at Ateneo de Manila University and De La Salle University in the Philippines.