Skip to content

A UN treaty on plastic pollution moves another step closer


Next week in Paris, negotiations on a UN treaty on plastic pollution continue. But why are these talks so pivotal? And what is Unilever – as part of the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty – asking governments to consider?

Sculpture titled ‘Turn off the plastic tap’ by artist Benjamin von Wong, made with plastic waste from Nairobi’s Kibera slum.

There’s clear evidence that plastic pollution is set to increase by 2040, but voluntary efforts to tackle it, so far, aren’t keeping pace with the problem. That’s why we need global action that gets to the root of the issue at the speed and scale required – and, ultimately, changes the way the world uses and recycles plastic.

The solution lies in reducing the production and use of plastic – especially fossil-fuel derived virgin plastic – and keeping all plastic that is produced in a circular economy and out of the environment.

At the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) in March 2022, 175 countries agreed to begin negotiations on a UN treaty on plastic pollution that aims to do just that.

The Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty

Unilever is a member of the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty, which was convened by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) after UNEA to bring together businesses from different sectors, NGOs and other organisations across the plastics value chain to support the development of an ambitious and effective treaty.

The Business Coalition’s vision is a circular economy in which plastic never becomes waste or pollution, and the value of products and materials is retained in the economy. The belief is that a comprehensive circular economy approach can address the root causes of plastic pollution and contribute to the global efforts to combat the climate and biodiversity crisis, while delivering economic, environmental and social benefits.

More than 100 organisations have now joined the Business Coalition, from brand owners like Unilever through to retailers, financial institutions, packaging producers and waste management companies. As the treaty negotiations continue, we hope to recruit even more organisations, uniting industry under a common purpose.

Read more about the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty.

Negotiations are well underway

As part of the agreement reached at UNEA, governments now meet every six months at Intergovernmental Negotiating Committees (INCs) to thrash out the details of the treaty by the end of next year.

The INCs offer stakeholders the chance to put forward their views on what the treaty should say and how legally binding it should be.

These stakeholders include leaders from civil society, science and academia as well as business. Importantly, the INCs include representatives from the informal sector (local waste collectors and waste pickers), whose role in the global recycling system often goes unrecognised.

At the first round of negotiations (known as INC-1) – which we attended in Uruguay last November – we were encouraged by calls from governments across the world for global rules and obligations to be set for all countries, across the full life cycle of plastic.

The second round of negotiations (INC-2) takes place next week in Paris, and here we expect the talks to shift from process to substance.

Why are these meetings in Paris so important?

At INC-2, governments will discuss some of the core elements of the treaty that are yet to be defined and agreed – for instance, its objectives, scope and means of implementation.

Countries will lay out their expectations and the hope is that these will be used to develop a draft legal text. This ‘zero draft’, as it’s known, is important because it will form the basis of future negotiations.

Unilever is attending the negotiations in Paris with the Business Coalition, calling for these all-important legal foundations to be laid.

“To give ourselves the best chance to end plastic pollution, the treaty must set legally binding global rules and obligations for all countries. Ambitious goals to tackle this issue will be meaningless unless we establish the policy measures to deliver them,” explains Ed Shepherd, our Senior Global Sustainability Manager and lead representative in the Business Coalition.

“Our hope is that this second round of negotiations will get into the detail, because we need to work at pace if a text is to be agreed by 2025. The options paper published by the United Nations Environment Programme – to be discussed in Paris – is incredibly encouraging and includes many of the elements we’ve been calling for as a Business Coalition, like reduction, circulation and prevention.”

What are Unilever and the Business Coalition asking governments to consider?

What should the treaty achieve?

  • Reduction of plastic production and use through a circular economy approach, with a focus on eliminating plastics that have high environmental leakage rates and decoupling from fossil-based virgin resources.
  • Circulation of all plastic items that cannot be eliminated, keeping them in the economy at their highest value, through the development of collection and processing infrastructure, and well-designed Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes.
  • Prevention of plastic leakage into the environment, including through robust waste management practices.

How should the treaty achieve this?

  • Set legally binding 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 design standards for packaging, and we believe harmonised definitions and metrics are critical to get reuse models to scale. Establishing and enforcing globally harmonised standards for packaging is key to ensuring all plastics are safe to be used, reused and recycled.
  • Establish Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policies so that all companies who introduce packaging and other products to the market contribute financially to their after-use collection and treatment.
  • Couple design requirements with targets for scaling reuse models and recycling infrastructure to keep plastics in circulation for longer at their highest value.

The Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty has published its policy recommendations ahead of INC-2. You can read them here.

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.

Related articles

Back to top