Monday, 2024 May 27

Global plastic treaty talks could hinge on China pledging to curb plastic production

This week, world leaders gathered in Ottawa, Canada to resume negotiations on the terms of a legally binding international treaty pertaining to plastic pollution. However, with the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) heavily divided on the matter of reducing plastic production, the efficacy of the treaty could turn out to depend heavily on China’s cooperation.

China’s current stance is that the treaty should focus only on the effective management of plastic waste. This does not align with the approach recommended by the Scientists’ Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty, which asserts that reducing the production of plastic is necessary to meaningfully address plastic pollution.

According to data from Statista, China is the world’s largest producer and exporter of virgin plastics, which are essentially plastics manufactured from previously unused materials. Hence, the country has a sizable stake in the continued high-volume production of plastic.

Ahead of the previous round of negotiations for a global plastic treaty in Nairobi last year, Wang Wang, chairman of the China Scrap Plastics Association, told Reuters that restricting plastic production would not effectively solve the real problem of plastic pollution, which instead requires the responsible use of plastic.

The production of plastics relies heavily on fossil fuels, particularly oil and natural gas. According to a report by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, plastic production currently accounts for around 5% of global emissions, a number set to double by 2050. Plastic waste can persist in the environment for hundreds of years, with potential long-term impacts on human health. As such, there is a pressing need to reduce the environmental footprint of plastic throughout its life cycle, from production to use to disposal.

According to Our World in Data, China is the world’s second largest source of mismanaged plastic waste. In 2021, China announced a new “five-year plan” to improve its management of plastic pollution by phasing out single-use plastics, boosting recycling and promoting alternatives to plastic.

However, despite pledging to cut the production and use of plastics under its five-year plan, holding China accountable may be challenging in the absence of a legally binding international agreement.

China has been aggressively expanding its petrochemicals industry, accounting for nearly three-quarters of global petrochemicals capacity growth in 2024, according to the International Energy Agency. The surge in petrochemical production in China has contributed to a global oversupply of industrial chemicals used in plastic such as polyethylene, causing the price of virgin plastics to plummet.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), less than 10% of plastic waste produced globally to date has been recycled. The surplus of virgin plastics presents a hurdle to advocating for recycled plastic usage. This is because the availability of virgin materials at lower prices creates a competitive disadvantage for producers of recycled plastics.

Moreover, as long as plastic production continues unabated, initiatives targeting the use and disposal of plastic will likely remain inadequate to reduce plastic pollution on a global scale. For example, China’s 2018 ban on imports of plastic waste merely redirected foreign plastic waste exports to other nations such as Thailand and Malaysia.

China forms part of a coalition of fossil fuel-dependent nations informally known as the “Like-Minded Countries.” The group, which includes Saudi Arabia and Russia, enjoys the firm backing of big oil companies such as ExxonMobil and Dow, which may hold financial interests closely tied to the sustained production of plastic from petrochemicals.

On the other hand, the High Ambition Coalition (HAC)—comprising over 60 countries including European Union members, Australia, and Japan—is in favor of a strong treaty that will limit plastic production and ensure greater transparency and regulation of chemicals and components used in the plastic manufacturing process.

The current conference in Ottawa is the fourth of five INC sessions discussing a potential plastic treaty, with the fifth and final session set to be held in Busan, South Korea in November 2024.

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