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Asia-Pacific States Must Divorce Their Industry Friends for a Strong Global Plastics Treaty

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Asia-Pacific States Must Divorce Their Industry Friends for a Strong Global Plastics Treaty

With just two meetings left to finalize the treaty text, the significance of the current Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee meeting cannot be overstated.

Asia-Pacific States Must Divorce Their Industry Friends for a Strong Global Plastics Treaty
Credit: Depositphotos

In March 2022, during the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA 5.2), 175 nations agreed to negotiate an international instrument to end plastic pollution. The decision came in the form of resolution 5/14 to negotiate a legally-binding treaty “on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment… based on a comprehensive approach that addresses the full life cycle of plastic.” An Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) was set up with the mandate for drafting the instrument by the end of 2024 across five INC meetings starting with INC1 in November 2022. 

From April 23 to 29, Asia-Pacific countries and their counterparts from across the world will attend the fourth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-4) in Ottawa, Canada. With just two meetings left to finalize the treaty text, the significance of INC-4 cannot be overstated. It will see countries taking up the monumental task of negotiating a 68-page document formally known as the Revised Zero Draft. 

The challenge isn’t limited to the length of the negotiating text but also to a few bad-faith negotiations that have made increasingly shameless maneuvers over the last INCs to prevent fruitful discussions from occurring. 

Let’s rewind to the last meeting to understand the dynamics better. INC-3  started with a group of “like-minded” countries – possibly including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Bahrain, Cuba, and The Russian Federation (and probably more) – announcing the formation of a bloc. This self-selected group of petrochemical and plastic-producing states did everything possible to hold productive discussions hostage.

Nonetheless, the first reading of the 31-page Zero Draft, which observers saw as a comprehensive text with all potential options expressed, was concluded. The result was a much bloated “revised zero draft,” which some observers called a sub-zero draft; a hodge-podge of ideas on options – including language often without legal merit. With no time remaining for a second reading or actual negotiations on the text, no provision was deleted. That is the string of hope the civil society movement has its hopes tied to. 

The Asia-Pacific is the second largest regional group within the United Nations, just behind Africa. Africa, however, is a strong bloc with high alignment and few exceptions. On the other hand, the Asia-Pacific is a rainbow region that can be visualized almost as a spectrum of sub-groups. The Pacific Island developing states are on the extreme high end of ambition, calling for cuts in plastic production, while countries like China and India on the other end are hell-bent on a nationally determined, voluntary agreement focused only on preventing plastic leakage and managing it as waste. Southeast Asia is sandwiched in the middle of this spectrum. 

Asia accounts for over half of global plastics production, with China – the largest manufacturer – alone accounting for 30 percent. India, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand are other key petrochemical investing nations in the region.

Plastic production is already heavily subsidized, making it cheap – but at the cost of the environment and human well-being. A recent study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory makes it clear that primary plastic production must decrease by at least 11.8-17.3 percent per year starting in 2024 to meet the 1.5 degree Celsius limit on global warming set under the Paris Agreement. 

The price of plastics does not remotely include the negative externalities caused across its life cycle, such as the cost to public health. This is only worsening the plastic crisis – and this is what an international agreement could change. 

As a region, Asia presents a huge challenge with its vested interests in petrochemicals. However, even if the oil and plastic-producing countries withdraw from the treaty, something few of them threatened to do in the last meeting, the non-party provisions can regulate how parties (those who sign the treaty) trade with countries not party to the agreement. 

Domestically, many governments are pushing waste-to-energy (WtE) in Southeast Asian countries courtesy of investments and technology from Japan and China, and other Global North countries. The Asian Development Bank and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank have also provided over a billion U.S. dollars in loans, grants, and technical assistance for WtE projects in Asia in the name of circular economy and climate mitigation projects. 

The climate and health costs of such technocratic “false solutions” have been well documented through both scientific studies and community stories. Matter cannot be created or destroyed; when these harmful technologies are applied to a toxic material like plastic, toxins come out in the form of contaminated water, soil, dirty fuel, emissions, microplastics, ash, and so on.

Recycling of plastic waste is used as an excuse by both the exporting and the importing countries; it is presented as a business solution in the garb of promoting circular economy and sustainable development. The reality is that Asian countries lack the infrastructure needed to handle such a load of plastic waste, while the Global North conveniently washes its hands of the responsibility for inflicting the plastic linear economy on its poorer counterparts. This is a form of colonialism

China’s waste import ban of 2018 had a trickle effect on its Asia counterparts. Southeast Asia is now the most impacted by illegal plastic waste imports. Malaysia is one of the worst impacted, receiving  79 million kilograms of plastic waste scrap under HS Code 3915 from Japan in 2022 alone, according to the latest report by C4 center

In South Asia, the governments of Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh face downstream impacts of overproduction and waste created by their wealthier neighbors. The fragile Himalayan or riverine and ocean ecosystems, combined with poor waste infrastructure, make them highly vulnerable to the impacts of plastic pollution. Additionally, low resources, poor geopolitical position, and limited technical expertise make them vulnerable to powerful bullies inside and outside the negotiation halls.

INC-4 is the make-or-break moment for the plastics agreement. First, the mess around the Rules of Procedure that determine the work of the INC remains provisionally applied until consensus is reached. In particular, the rule around decision-making has been a procedural nightmare since INC-1. 

Countries against an ambitious treaty continue to argue for consensus alone for decision-making. While consensus is an accepted practice in multilateral spaces, the option for voting incentivizes countries to compromise to the most acceptable decision, generally without actual voting. If voting is not ensured in the rules, any country can have veto power to block a decision and prevent progress. 

Two, defining the life cycle of plastics is a major point of contention. While progressive countries’ stance is clear that it starts with the extraction of oil for production, blocking countries continue to emphasize that plastic or its production is not the problem; leakage into the environment is. We know only speaks to their vested agenda. Plastics are not a necessity, and civil society and scientific groups have provided enough data and evidence to support it.

The fact is that upwards of 109 countries want cuts in plastic production, but since the bullying countries are loud, they overpower the narrative against production. The latest public survey by Greenpeace, which involved 19,000 respondents in a number of countries, including Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, the Philippines, Japan, China, and South Korea, showed unprecedented support for production cuts. Filipinos showed the highest level of support at 93 percent, followed by Chinese at 92 percent, Indians at 86 percent with the lowest support from Japanese people at 68 percent. This proves a disconnect between governments and their people on the issue. 

The Asia-Pacific has been a land of indigenous knowledge, of reuse and refill systems, historically before globalization in the 1990s took us down the capitalistic path. What we now call Zero Waste solutions have existed in our recent past. Our region has been a fertile ground for environmentally sound, economically beneficial, and locally led solutions. It is about time our governments realize the value in these systems, and divorce their industry friends – otherwise, the current and future generations would never forgive them for causing irreparable harm to our planet and our bodies.