Towards a global treaty against plastic pollution

CONICET specialists participated in the Third Session of the Intergovernmental Negotiation Committee of the UN Environment Program.

Third Session of the Intergovernmental Negotiation Committee. Photo: Courtesy of IISD/INC-3

In Nairobi, Kenya, at the headquarters of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the Third Session of the Intergovernmental Negotiation Committee (INC-3) created to design the Global Plastics Treaty for 2025 was held. The delegations of 175 negotiating countries, including Argentina, met. Two CONICET specialists: Andrés Arias, researcher at the Argentine Institute of Oceanography (IADO, CONICET- UNS) and Marina Fernández, researcher at the Institute of Biology and Experimental Medicine (IBYME, CONICET- F-IBYME) participated as scientific observers, along with non-governmental organizations from around the world, for negotiations and as scientific support for the delegations of each country.

According to the specialists, in this third meeting the text of the zero draft of the treaty was discussed, which had been produced between the second and third meetings. This document presents different parts, including objectives, obligations and means of implementation. In addition, contact groups were established where specific parts of this draft were analyzed and where the scientific contribution was considered.

“This is a global, historic initiative in environmental terms with the aim of reducing plastic pollution, including ocean pollution and microplastics, throughout the entire life cycle of plastic. More broadly, the treaty seeks to protect health, safeguard human rights and preserve the Earth, our common home. Although the general problem has local, national and regional aspects, we consider that the possibility of regulating certain elements of the problem with a global and legally binding approach for all countries is a necessary condition for the primary objective of the treaty,” commented Arias.

And he explained: “For example, global production of virgin plastic has multiplied by 200 since 1950: from 2 million tons/year to more than 400 million tons/year today. This production rate is set to double again by 2040 and triple by 2060. Definitely, an infinite production scheme is not compatible with either the limits of the planet of the sustainability objectives that all countries ascribe to. In addition, of this production, single-use plastic (used once and discarded) represents between 35% and 40% of current production and year after year this fraction increases.”

For her part, researcher Marina Fernández commented on some of the challenges to be addressed in the fourth meeting. “We have to agree on some definitions, for example, that when we talk about plastic pollution we are not just referring to plastic garbage. This definition is limited, and would limit the scope of the treaty. A broader definition, which considers the entire life cycle of plastic, as well as the one proposed in UNEA resolution 5/14, would help us achieve an effective treaty that protects human and ecosystem health.” And also “seek effective ways to collaborate as scientists with the member states of the committee. “As scientists, what we seek is to synthesize the available information, to bring it closer to the states that are going to negotiate the treaty.”

And she highlighted: “From the international scientific community, represented in the negotiations by the Scientists Coalition and the Endocrine Society, among other groups, we believe that the global plastics treaty represents a unique opportunity to address a problem that affects us as a planet: “plastic pollution, understood as contamination throughout the entire life cycle of plastic, from extraction to the end of useful life.”

Finally, Arias highlighted that the regions of the planet have different particularities, cultures, geographies, installed capacities and economies. “In order to overcome the inequities of a common rule applied to all regions, the treaty under development must also address the concept of a “just transition”, favoring technology transfer schemes, “know how” and financing for the installation of processing and treatment capacity for plastic waste in all regions of the planet.”

It is worth mentioning that both Arias and Fernandez are members of the Red Argentina para el Estudio del impacto por Plásticos (SEPIA) and at the same time an international coalition of independent scientists whose objective is to advise the signatory countries on all possible technical aspects in order to achieve an effective global plastics treaty (Science Coalition for an Effective Plastic Treaty, SCEPT).

During the development of the negotiation sessions, and together with 38 other researchers with global distribution, they attended as scientific observers, advising in technical terms to all the delegations that requested it. Topics addressed ranged from promoting sustainable consumption and production of plastics, the effects of plastic pollution on biodiversity including: the oceans and marine environment as well as toxicity, chemicals and potential risks to human health. In addition, promote the circular economy of plastics and the environmental management of waste including collection, classification and recycling and socioeconomic challenges at a global level.

This is the third meeting after a historic resolution was adopted in March 2022, at the resumption of the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2), to develop a legally binding international instrument on plastic pollution, also in the marine environment. The first session of the INC (INC-1) took place in Punta del Este, Uruguay, from November 28 to December 2, 2022, followed by a second session (INC-2) in Paris, France, from May 29 to June 2, 2023.

CONICET researcher Andres Arias is a specialist in organic pollutants and plastics in oceanic environments and works at the Argentine Institute of Oceanography (IADO-CONICET-UNS). He is a member of the United Nations Scientific Advisory Committee for Plastics and Microplastics (SAC-UNEP) and the Group of Independent Scientific Experts that advises the United Nations system on the scientific aspects of marine environmental protection (GESAMP, Working Group 40: Marine Plastics). He is a professor at the Universidad Nacional del Sur, editor of the oceanography book series for Springer and participates in several national and international anchor projects for the resolution of various environmental problems related to persistent pollutants and plastic waste.

CONICET researcher Marina Fernández works at the Neuroendocrinology Laboratory of the Institute of Biology and Experimental Medicine (IBYME, CONICET- F-IBYME). She studies the effects of environmental pollutants present in plastics and personal care products in laboratory models, both in vivo and in vitro. She is also a delegate of the Endocrine Society in the negotiation committee for the plastics treaty, editor and associate of the Journal of the Endocrine Society, and member of the scientific affairs committee of the same society.