Plastic Pollution Treaty: Nations Gather in Nairobi, Kenya

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As diplomats gather in Nairobi for the latest round of discussions on a proposed United Nations treaty to combat plastic pollution, expectations of heightened tensions loom large. The talks, scheduled for November 13–19, will mark the third session of negotiations but the first to consider a draft treaty text published in September, setting the stage for what is anticipated to be a contentious exchange of ideas.

Last year, a landmark commitment by 175 countries aimed to finalize a U.N. treaty targeting the pervasive issue of plastic pollution by 2024. However, as the negotiations progress, divergent opinions on the specific details of the treaty are causing friction among participating nations.

Approximately 60 countries are advocating for binding regulations to curb the use and production of plastic, especially that derived from fossil fuels—a stance supported by various environmental groups. However, this proposition faces resistance from significant plastic-producing economies, including the United States, which has historically emphasized recycling, innovation, and improved waste management over restrictive regulations.

The draft text, presenting various policy alternatives, will be the focal point of discussions at the U.N. Environment Programme headquarters in Nairobi. With over 2,000 registered delegates and representatives from environmental and plastic advocacy groups in attendance, the negotiations are expected to intensify as the specifics of the treaty are debated.

Preceding the talks, hundreds of climate activists marched in Nairobi, urging a reduction in overall plastic production with placards reading “Plastic crisis = climate crisis.” The intersectionality of plastic pollution and climate change has become a rallying point for those seeking holistic environmental solutions.

This plastic-focused meeting in Nairobi serves as a precursor to critical climate discussions in the United Arab Emirates later this month, where deliberations on fossil fuels and their planet-warming emissions will be in the spotlight.

However, mirroring the climate and biodiversity talks, financial considerations remain a contentious point in the plastic negotiations. Historically, wealthier economies have contributed more to pollution and exported recyclable waste to less prosperous nations, resulting in environmental contamination. Developing nations express concerns about regulations that could disproportionately burden their economies.

Environmental advocates emphasize that the treaty’s effectiveness hinges on governments committing to capping and gradually reducing plastic production. Over the past two decades, plastic production has doubled, reaching 460 million tonnes in 2019, according to the OECD. Despite increased awareness, current projections suggest production could triple by 2060 without decisive action.

Approximately two-thirds of plastic waste is discarded after minimal use, with less than 10 percent being recycled, leading to millions of tonnes improperly disposed of in the environment.

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