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UN plastics treaty: reasons to be optimistic


With the fourth round of negotiations for a UN treaty to end plastic pollution now concluded, Unilever CEO Hein Schumacher reflects on the progress made and the road ahead.

Unilever CEO Hein Schumacher on stage during a panel discussion at INC4 in Ottawa.

Last week I took the opportunity to attend INC4 in Ottawa, the fourth round of negotiations towards a UN treaty to end plastic pollution. This was a critical juncture in the process because the issues at the core of the treaty were being debated.

I was there representing the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty, a group of over 200 organisations from across the plastic value chain who believe a legally binding treaty is an unmissable opportunity to tackle the plastic pollution crisis.

I felt it necessary for governments to hear directly why a treaty with globally binding rules – including rules on upstream policy interventions – is what business needs. Unilever and the Business Coalition are calling for global rules because voluntary initiatives alone will not solve the crisis. Furthermore, at Unilever, we know that for us to deliver on our plastic packaging commitments, we need all actors to pull in the same direction.

As I mentioned in my plenary speech in Ottawa, this means governments putting in place policies that level the playing field. Business responds to regulatory certainty, but the reality is we are facing a hugely fragmented policy environment for packaging from country to country. A treaty can harmonise this landscape, helping to simplify our supply chains, scale existing solutions and spur further innovation.

As we approach the fifth – and hopefully final – round of negotiations later this year, I wanted to look back at Ottawa and ahead to INC5 in Busan, South Korea.

Members of the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty at INC4 in Ottawa.

Progress made: optimism from Ottawa

The Business Coalition’s membership continues to grow, illustrating the unprecedented alignment across the plastics value chain on the need for globally binding rules to be at the core of the treaty.

Promisingly, the treaty text is being streamlined. And, vitally, measures across the full life-cycle of plastic remain. The Business Coalition’s priority areas are included – restrictions and phase-outs, product design and extended producer responsibility (EPR). Agreeing global rules in these areas is not only achievable, it will also accelerate the voluntary work already being done by the industry.

Furthermore, the mandate for intersessional work is very significant. This will allow for much-needed technical discussions, improving the chances of text alignment ahead of INC5. The Business Coalition is ready to support the intersessional process, bringing the lessons learned from voluntary initiatives such as the Global Commitment led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme.

Reduction is critical. It is the quickest way to cut plastic pollution. But how the treaty will seek to reduce virgin plastic production remains unclear.

Hein Schumacher, Unilever CEO

The road ahead: more work still urgently needed

Reduction is critical. It is the quickest way to cut plastic pollution. But how the treaty will seek to reduce virgin plastic production remains unclear. The same can be said for how it will help scale reuse and refill models. I was encouraged to see growing momentum behind calls for reduction policies, including the proposal from Peru and Rwanda for intersessional work in this area – something we support. With just a few months to go, this crucial element still does not have a clear path forward.

We believe governments should prioritise discussions on upstream measures such as phasing out problematic and avoidable plastic products in a globally coordinated way, and harmonising design criteria for plastic packaging.

While these will be the more difficult conversations to have, global rules in these areas will provide business with the certainty needed to scale existing solutions, spark innovation and mobilise investment. At Unilever, we have reduced our virgin plastic use by 18% against a 2019 baseline, which is industry leading. We’re also firmly on track to hit our target to use 25% recycled plastic by 2025, showing that it is possible to move away from virgin plastic while growing as a business. The right policies can help accelerate this trend.

Finally, there remains far too much emphasis on national measures. We know already that this will not work, as it will create more fragmentation. Put simply, a treaty based on national measures rather than global rules will make it much harder for business to implement. Business has shown it can scale solutions, but to go much faster and further, we need mandatory global rules.

Put simply, a treaty based on national measures rather than global rules will make it much harder for business to implement.

Hein Schumacher, Unilever CEO

No time to waste

There were growing signs at INC4 that a treaty with global rules on upstream and downstream measures is within reach. As a member of the Business Coalition, we will continue to make the business case for this.

Unilever’s updated approach to sustainability is about being more focused, more urgent and more systemic. We will be applying this mindset – and our resources – behind this once-in-a-generation opportunity to fundamentally change the world’s relationship with plastic. As part of the Business Coalition, my team and I are ready to support, partner and work alongside governments and observers to secure an ambitious treaty.

To read more about our updated commitments on plastics, climate, nature and livelihoods, visit our Sustainability Hub.

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