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Australia and Negotiations for a Global Plastics Treaty and reduce plastic pollution in the marine environment


Photo by IISD/ENB

The final resolution at the United Nations Environment Assembly 21 February – 4 March 2022 was to develop a Global Plastics Treaty and to set up an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to develop an internationally legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment.

That Negotiating Committee has now convened 28 November – 2 December 2022 at Punta del Este, Uruguay. Negotiations on the Treaty is expected to take until 2024. Australia is attending and have made a submission regarding processes and a statement to the Opening Plenary

  • UNEP Environment Assembly Resolution on Global Plastics Treaty
  • Plastics Treaty Needs to Consider Chemicals
  • Scientists say Global plastic treaty should address chemicals
  • Australia joins global efforts to end plastic pollution 16 November
  • Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee meeting 28 November – 2 December 2022
  • Opening Plenary – Statement by Australia

UNEP Environment Assembly Resolution on Global Plastics Treaty

Final Resolution: In the final resolution, “End plastic pollution: Towards an internationally legally binding instrument” (UNEP/EA.5/L.23/Rev.1), UNEA requests the Executive Director to convene an INC, commencing its work during second half of 2022, with the ambition of completing its work by the end of 2024.

UNEA also, inter alia, decides that the INC should develop an international LBI on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment, which could include both binding and voluntary approaches, based on a comprehensive approach that addresses the full lifecycle of plastic, taking into account among other things, the principles of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, as well as national circumstances and capabilities, and provisions to, among others:

  • specify the objectives of the instrument;
  • promote sustainable production and consumption of plastics, including, among others, product design, and environmentally sound waste management, including through resource efficiency and circular economy approaches;
  • promote national and international cooperative measures to reduce plastic pollution in the marine environment, including existing plastic pollution; and
  • develop, implement and update national action plans reflecting country-driven approaches to contribute to the objectives of the instrument.

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Plastics Treaty Needs to Consider Chemicals

IPEN media Conference, Nairobi, Kenya, at UNEA 5.2 

Why the Plastics Treaty Needs to Consider Chemicals

  

Plastics Waste Fuels Summary (March 2022)

IPEN studies show how policy is driving massive investment in plastic waste-to-fuel processing, and that exports are threatening waste management in ASEAN countries and undermining the Basel Convention and climate change commitments.
Key Points
  • Australia’s world-first waste export ban is a trojan horse policy to continue exporting plastic waste redefined as fuel, otherwise known as refuse- derived fuel (RDF). The country’s plastic waste-fuel export model effectively shatters Australia’s pledge to cease exports of waste to ASEAN states.
  • The policy ignores South-East Asian countries’ efforts to resist international waste dumping and pollution colonisation.
  • It also undermines the objective of the recently ratified amendment to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal to stop trade in hazardous waste from richer to poorer countries, as ‘fuel products’ are not regulated by the Convention.
  • As the hazards associated with plastic waste fuel and RDF technology are not publicly disclosed, substantial risk and threats to public health and the environment are imminent.
  • The burning of plastic waste as fuel releases large volumes of greenhouse gases and toxic air pollutants, exacerbating the existing global climate and plastic pollution crisis. It also entrenches the escalating production of plastic and waste.
  • Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have insufficient regulatory, monitoring and enforcement capacity to manage plastic waste fuel hazards. The situation in these countries is likely to reflect the picture across South-East Asia, indicating that RDF trade should be halted as it will lead to environmental contamination and public health risks for importing countries. ASEAN countries are already struggling to manage burgeoning domestic waste streams and implement standards and laws to control waste impacts.
  • Australian customs regulators have instructed RDF exporters that they may require a hazardous waste export licence to ship their plastic waste fuel.

Reference: IPEN Plastic Waste Fuels Summary (March 2022) https://ipen.org/documents/plastic-waste-fuels-summary

Australian Refuse-Derived Fuel: Fuel product or plastic waste export in disguise? (March 2022)

From the introduction:

Australia is in the midst of the biggest waste recycling and reprocessing infrastructure build out in its history. This follows the Prime Minister’s announcement in 2019 that all waste exports would be banned from Australia, after China’s National Sword policy implementation and associated actions in other Asia Pacific countries. These policies effectively ban plastic and other waste exports from Australia to other countries and especially south-east Asian destinations.
While this ‘world first’ waste export ban decision received international acclaim, closer scrutiny reveals that in fact Australia is gearing up with substantial public and private funding and plans to continue to export its waste in a new “reprocessed” format. A large part of this ‘reprocessing’ is to create refuse derived fuels (RDF) which are bales or pellets of mixed waste to be burned in cement kilns or other industrial furnaces.
This has implications for the environment and human health due to the inherent toxicity risks and hazards of petrochemical based plastic wastes containing toxic additives which are amplified when burned. It also has major implications for climate change as plastic fuels are derivatives of fossil fuels. Burning plastic waste, including as a “reprocessed fuel product”, is not recycling or clean energy.

Scientists say Global plastic treaty should address chemicals

In a letter in Science published 24 November several scientists highlight that chemical issues need to be address in the full life cycle of plastics:

Even with material recycling, plastics chemicals ultimately proliferate in the ecosystem, whether as emissions or by entering new products, exposing waste-laborers, consumers, and frontline communities to new chemical cocktails (10). An effective, fair, and safe circular economy can only be achieved by phasing out toxic chemicals from plastic production (11).
As negotiations for a global treaty begin, plastics chemicals need to be front and center. However, preparatory meeting documents focus on downstream plastic waste and work from a narrow definition of chemicals as hazardous additives (12). To enable the treaty to fully address plastics’ ecological, health, and environmental justice problems, it is essential to redefine plastics as complex chemical mixtures and to integrate chemical issues across the life cycle within the scope and core obligations of the legal instrument.

16 November 2022 – Australia joins global efforts to end plastic pollution. 

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Protest highlights toxic chemicals in plastics – 28 November

The International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) unfurled a banner at the start of INC1 on 28 November in Uruguay as delegates started arriving for the conference.. 

“The Plastics Treaty must be understood as a global health agreement,” said María Isabel Cárcamo, coordinator of the local nonprofit RAP-AL Uruguay, an IPEN Participating Organization. “This week it will be critical for delegates to understand that toxic chemicals pose threats to our health and the environment throughout the plastics lifecycle. Especially in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, the Treaty must protect communities from plastic dumping that threatens the human right to healthy environments.” says IPEN in a media release

Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee meeting 28 November – 2 December 2022

First Session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to develop an internationally legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment.

Day 1: summary

Earth Negotiations Bulletin In the corridors section summed up the first day as:

In a standing-room-only opening session, the anticipation of a new treaty addressing plastic (pollution) was palpable. Under the stewardship of INC Chair Gustavo Meza-Cuadra of Peru, delegates swiftly came to a tentative agreement on some procedural issues, which some had feared would hold up the start of the real talks. “An amicable agreement on the rules of procedure could bode well for agreement on the weightier issues before us throughout the process,” opined one seasoned delegate.

With calls for “process not to hold up progress,” delegates got down to business, sharing general statements on what a new treaty might mean for each region and country. Unsurprisingly, clear calls for adequate financial assistance for implementation were quickly voiced, with several developing countries prioritizing this issue. Others, however, shared their hopes for the direction of a new treaty, with the now familiar nudges of “not reinventing the wheel” heard in some quarters. In private, some observers were adamant that if we are to effectively address the root causes of plastic pollution, “we may need to break the wheel entirely.”

Australia: Submission to the INC Process (Excerpt)

Australian National Measures

Plastic pollution, including in the marine environment, is a problem that no one nation can solve on its own. Australia is lucky to be home to some of the most stunning marine environments in the world.

By working together, we can better protect and preserve these unique ecosystems and the biodiversity they support.

Addressing plastic pollution through a new global instrument is a key pillar of Australia’s international environmental agenda. We will pursue ambitious action under the instrument to end plastic pollution.

Australia is pursuing a range of national measures to address plastic pollution. We have set industry-led National Packaging Targets, which include by 2025:

  • 100% of packaging being reusable, recyclable or compostable
  • 70% of our plastic packaging recycled or composted
  • 50% average recycled content in all packaging including 20% average recycled content in all
  • of our plastic packaging, and
  • The phase out of problematic and unnecessary single-use plastic packaging.

As a federated state, management of plastic pollution is shared between the national Australian Government and state and territory governments. Australia will ensure that its state and territory governments are consulted throughout the development of the instrument.

All state and territory governments in Australia have banned single-use lightweight plastic bags and are committed to phasing out eight problematic and unnecessary plastic product types by 2025. These eight items include:

  • Lightweight shopping bags
  • “Degradable” plastics (fragmentable/oxo-degradable)
  • Plastic straws
  • Plastic utensils and stirrers
  • Expanded polystyrene (EPS) consumer food containers (e.g. cups and clamshells)
  • EPS consumer goods packaging (loose fill and moulded), and
  • Microbeads in personal health care products.

Australia has also committed to progressively phase-out the export of certain waste materials, including plastic waste through its Recycling and Waste Reduction Act (2020). This will contribute to reducing the flow of plastics into the world’s oceans. The Act establishes a framework to: regulate the export of waste materials; manage the environmental, health and safety impacts of products, in particular those impacts associated with the disposal of products; and provide for voluntary, coregulatory and mandatory product stewardship schemes.

Plastic pollution is an issue of particular importance to the Pacific region. Australia is committed to working with our neighbours. We are a supporting member of the ANZPAC Plastics Pact, an industryled regional pact focused on accelerating a circular economy for plastic packaging and reducing plastic waste and pollution in the Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands region through an ambitious set of targets.

Australia has also committed to signing up to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation New Plastics Economy Global Commitment in 2022.

Australia has provided funding assistance of $729,000 from 2022-2024 to the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) to build capacity and support Pacific Island country preparations for, and participation in, negotiations for the instrument. This support strengthens our regional support on tackling plastic pollution, including through the $16 million Pacific Ocean Litter Project.

We look forward to further collaboration on tackling plastic pollution with our Pacific Island neighbours and welcome suggestions on current challenges and barriers facing the region. 

Reference: Australia: Submission to the INC Process (PDF)

Opening Plenary – Statement by Australia

Thank you Chair, and may I congratulate you on your appointment.

I also wish to extend my sincere thanks to the Government of Uruguay and the community of Punta del Este, for so graciously hosting this negotiating session.

Excellencies and fellow delegates – Australia welcomes the opportunity to work with you all this week as we take the first steps together to develop a new international binding agreement to end plastic pollution.

We welcome the broad cross section of stakeholders represented in the multi-stakeholder dialogue – including business, scientists, civil society, non-government organisations and the informal sector.

Australia also recognises the continuing connection to land and culture of First Nations peoples across the world, and the importance of their participation and contributions to this process.

We all have a vested interest in a safe circular economy and the end of plastic pollution.

Plastic’s unique characteristics have been revolutionary in our global development. Its properties have led to it being one of the most prevalent human-made products on earth. It serves important functions in medicine, keeps food fresh and reduces transportation costs.

But the simple truth is that we are using plastic in an unsustainable way.

Like other nations, Australia faces domestic challenges of using too much plastic that is designed for short term consumption. While it takes only a moment for plastics to enter the environment, the impacts can last for centuries.

As an island nation, Australia experiences the impacts of the shared problem of marine plastic pollution. We see too often the devastating impacts that plastic pollution has on our marine mammals, fish and birdlife.

For our Pacific neighbours, marine plastic pollution is a significant environmental, health and economic development problem. It degrades natural ecosystems and threatens food security.

Australia is committed to strong action to transition to a more circular plastics economy.

  • We have stopped the export of unprocessed plastic waste to ensure that Australia’s waste does not cause environmental and human health problems elsewhere
  • We are eliminating problematic and unnecessary single-use plastic products
  • We are reforming our regulation of packaging to drive a greater focus on design and alignment with circular economy principles
  • And we are expanding our recycling capacity and investing in new and exciting technology to revolutionise plastic recycling and to develop more sustainable alternatives to plastics.

To support our national efforts, Australia seeks an ambitious global agreement on plastic pollution and is delighted to have recently announced our membership of the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution.

We seek an instrument that supports ambitious action on plastic pollution across the entire life cycle of plastics.

The instrument should support a safe circular economy, eliminate problematic and unnecessary plastics, and accelerate international efforts to remove harmful chemicals from product supply chains.

The instrument should support national-level actions, complemented by clear, transparent global requirements where necessary.

We look forward to working with you this week to take the first steps in agreeing the foundation elements of the treaty and prioritising workstreams for us to progress out of session.

This INC process provides a unique opportunity to align the efforts of our governments, civil society, business, scientists and others towards our goal to finalise an instrument by 2024 to end plastic pollution.

Thank you.

Reference: Australia’s statement to Opening Plenary, https://apps1.unep.org/resolutions/uploads/australia_updated_0.pdf

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