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The world gets to work on a plastic pollution treaty

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With negotiations on a UN treaty on plastic pollution kicking off next week in Uruguay, here’s what Unilever – and other businesses – are asking governments to consider at the talks.

30-foot sculpture ‘Turn off the plastic tap’ by Canadian artist Benjamin von Wong, made with plastic waste from Kibera slum.

At the UN Environment Assembly earlier this year, 175 countries agreed to begin negotiations on a UN treaty on plastic pollution. With projections that plastic pollution is set to rapidly increase by 2040, governments have agreed to work together to find common solutions to this critical issue.

While business has been laying the pathway with voluntary action – most notably the Ellen MacArthur Foundation Global Commitment – it’s clear that such initiatives must be supported by policy if the world is to move with the speed required to truly solve this problem.

That’s why we’re advocating for a robust legally binding treaty that sets common goals, rules and obligations that member states must implement. One that helps governments create a level playing field for the industry and prevents a patchwork of disconnected solutions.

Next week, the world gets down to business

The agreement made at UNEA provides an outline of what the treaty will be and how governments should come together to work out the finer details. It set in motion a series of twice-yearly Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee meetings (INCs) which aim to have a final text ready by the end of 2024. This is a highly ambitious timeframe for a global instrument of this sort.

The first INC takes place in Uruguay next week and will see over 500 government representatives gather to begin negotiations.

The INCs offer a chance for stakeholders to attend and put across their views on what the treaty should be. These stakeholders include thought leaders from civil society, science and academia as well as business. Importantly, it also includes representatives from the informal sector (local waste collectors or waste pickers), whose role in the global recycling system often goes unrecognised.

Unilever will be present in Uruguay as part of the newly formed Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty – a group of over 90 leading businesses and financial institutions committed to supporting the development of an ambitious, effective and legally binding UN treaty.

We’re endorsing a business vision which sets out a collective view on what it should achieve and how. We believe it must set the right enabling conditions to successfully end plastic pollution and support sustainable business growth.

As Richard Slater, our Chief R&D Officer, says: “The UN treaty on plastic pollution offers a historic chance to create an effective, legally binding, global plan to tackle plastic waste at the scale and speed required.”

What is Unilever asking for?

What should the treaty achieve?

  • Reduce the production and use of virgin plastic, including a clear timeline for the elimination of problematic types like undetectable carbon black plastic (industry is already voluntarily eliminating problematic plastic through the EMF Global Commitment).
  • Improve the circulation of plastic, keeping it at its highest value in the economy to ensure recycled plastic becomes the norm in packaging in the long term.
  • Prevent plastic leakage through the development of robust collection and processing infrastructure, and well-designed Extended Producer Responsibility schemes.

How should the treaty achieve this?

  • Set global targets, rules and obligations for all actors, allowing flexibility for national circumstances. This will provide the confidence and certainty for business to invest in long-term solutions.
  • Harmonise regulatory standards and policies across markets. We operate in 190 countries, so the current disconnected patchwork of solutions hinders progress towards our goals. Industry has already set harmonised design standards for packaging.
  • Define common definitions and reporting metrics to ensure accountability on action. Industry has already agreed definitions and reporting mechanisms through the EMF Global Commitment.

Watch this short video to see highlights from the Business Coalition launch event in September 2022 on the fringes of the UN General Assembly.

Find out more about the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty and register interest to join.

Main photo is of a 30-foot sculpture titled ‘Turn off the plastic tap’ by Canadian artist Benjamin von Wong, made with plastic waste from Nairobi’s Kibera slum.


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