The acronym ‘GPT’, popularised by ChatGPT, is a widely used term nowadays in the context of an ‘ask me anything’ invitation - an AI algorithm which can clear bar exams, write your resumes, create music, do your homework, etc. But there is another GPT which you ought to know, as terrestrial beings wading your daily lives through a sea of plastic (literally and metaphorically). GPT stands for Global Plastics Treaty, a historic endeavour which aims to create an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment. Plastic pollution was initially seen only as a marine litter problem in the 1970s. Before we could realise the impacts of plastic as a material to the fullest extent, plastic production skyrocketed and we started drowning in it. In the early 2000s, research began to show that plastic is not just a marine litter problem but had also entered the food chain causing grave health impacts to human and animal health and disrupting the natural balance of the ecosystem. The dangers posed by plastics are enormous as studies show that microplastics have been found in human veins, breastmilk and even in the placentas of unborn babies. Therefore, recognising the need for mandatory regulation of plastics at the global level, the United Nations Environment Assembly, the world’s highest-level decision-making body on the environment, passed a momentous resolution in March 2022 (UNEA resolution 5/14) to end plastic pollution through an international legally binding treaty. It is said to be the most important multilateral environmental agreement since the Paris Accord.
Why is it important?
It is a well-known fact that plastics are omnipresent and it has become virtually impossible to go a single day without using any plastic product. But it is a lesser known fact that this material created for human convenience is polluting and poisoning the environment irreparably, altering the natural balance of the planet, killing a multitude of marine and terrestrial animal species, affecting millions of people’s health and livelihoods and not only destroying the ecosystem’s ability to adapt to climate change but also accelerating it. Plastics are problematic not only as products but also as a substance due to the hazardous and toxic additives which go into their production. Due to its non-biodegradability, plastic waste deteriorates to become microplastics or nanoplastics which continue to exist in the environment, polluting the oceans, air and soil. Despite these many serious threats that plastic poses to mankind, the issue of plastic pollution has always been propagated as a waste management issue.
The plastics industry is a major part of the fossil fuel industry as 99% of plastics are largely derived from fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas. Extraction of fossil fuels has grave impacts on the environment causing air and water pollution, and is hazardous to human and animal health. Plastic production emits large amounts of GreenHouse Gases (GHG) at every stage (extraction, transportation, refining and manufacturing). Apart from production, post-consumer disposal (false) solutions such as incineration and waste-to-energy technologies also contribute significantly to GHG emissions. This leaves a devastating carbon footprint as estimates suggest ‘emissions from plastics production and incineration could account for 56 gigatons of carbon between now and 2050’. While policy interventions thus far are focussed on holding consumers and smaller players liable for increased usage of plastics in their daily lives, real action and intervention need to be made upstream since it is the overall production stage of plastics which is responsible for 96% of the carbon footprint of plastics.
So far governments have been focussing largely on driving consumer behaviour and attitudes away from plastics with common, generic slogans such as ‘Say no to plastics’ or encouraging people to recycle plastic waste without keeping in mind the absence of a robust recycling infrastructure and the non-recyclability of most plastic products. While change at the individual level is also needed, the real problem remains unaddressed. The root cause of plastic pollution at a catastrophic scale, is the ever-increasing production of plastic which remains uncontrolled owing to the strong influence the industry wields on governments. There is also a very clear global north-south divide in the issue of plastic pollution. The upstream stage of production of polymers and plastics by petrochemical companies is usually located in the global north. These rich nations which claim to have state-of-the-art infrastructure ship their plastic waste to the global south under the guise of recycling thus continuing the legacy of waste colonialism. As the global south has been made the world’s dumping ground, plastic pollution has been made out to be a waste management issue due to the inability of developing nations to manage plastic waste. This is why plastic pollution is not merely an environmental issue but a socioeconomic and geopolitical one as well. Therefore, these are the issues that the GPT is expected to address.
What can we expect from GPT?
The Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) is expected to deliver the treaty by the end of 2024. Developing and small-island nations which bear the brunt of plastic pollution along with Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) are advocating to shift the narrative of plastic pollution from downstream to upstream during the treaty negotiations. The petrochemical companies on the other hand, who have also been given a seat at the table in the INCs, will lobby for a weak treaty and focus the narrative on recycling and other downstream waste management measures. CSOs are also advocating for the treaty to acknowledge and prohibit ‘false solutions’ that are propagated by corporations and governments such as incineration, waste-to-energy technologies, so-called biodegradable plastics, chemical recycling, advanced recycling, pyrolysis, gasification, etc. It is within the petrochemical lobbies' active advantage to promote these false solutions. How these conflicting demands will be met is something only time will tell.
One of the milestones of the INC-1 was the historic recognition of waste pickers in the negotiations. A Group of Friends of Waste Pickers was formed at the INC-1; this was an unprecedented moment as for the first time the world recognised the role, skills and rights of the informal sector of waste pickers. Waste pickers are the backbone of the waste management sector in the Global South. The main demand of waste pickers is that the treaty should develop a just transition plan. Just transition ensures that those whose livelihoods are dependent on plastics (at all stages of its lifecycle) are not disproportionately affected by the social and economic challenges of ending plastic pollution. They demand maximising their current opportunities by providing adequate compensation for services, a key role in the plastic supply chain, access to social welfare schemes, and representation in the creation of policies at the local, national and international levels.
Another aspect of plastic that needs to be addressed at the upcoming INC is the concept of achieving a ‘circular economy’. However, plastic as a material and a product is not designed to be circular due to toxic chemical additives contained within it, and because most plastic products are not made to be repairable, reusable or recyclable, while manufacturers continue to propagate the myth of recycling! This problem with plastic can also be considered a form of planned obsolescence by the producers. If plastic is to function safely within a circular economy, GPT needs to ensure that plastics do not contain toxins, and are redesigned to be repaired, reused and recycled. However, the magnitude of plastic pollution cannot be addressed even if we were to make the transition to a circular economy. This is because, with a business as usual scenario, plastic production is estimated to triple by 2060. Therefore, as long as there are no caps or a significant reduction in plastic production, the amount of plastics in the environment will continue to proliferate. And due to the mismanagement of plastic waste and inadequate waste management infrastructure, particularly in developing countries, no technology or any other downstream measure will be capable of handling and managing that amount of waste.
INC-2 is scheduled to take place in the last week of May 2023 where potential treaty elements such as circular economy, plastic production reduction, just transition, elimination of problematic plastics, transparency of chemical additives, false solutions, etc will be negotiated. The High Ambition Coalition (HAC) co-chaired by Norway and Rwanda is attempting to mobilise countries to end plastic pollution by 2040. The coalition revolves around three principles: restrain plastic consumption and production to sustainable levels, enable a circular economy that protects the environment and human health and achieve environmentally sound management and recycling of plastic waste. India is not a member of this coalition, however, considering the continued increase in plastic production and demand in the country, it is important that India puts forth a strong commitment.
One might think that with the imposition of the ban on certain Single-Use Plastics (SUP), we are on the right track. However, banning consumers from using some SUPs will in no way suffice to address the plastic crisis in India. While plastic production continues on lines of business as usual, it is not possible to expect people to exercise restraint to stop using plastic.
The GPT is a historical effort bringing together 175 countries to negotiate an international legally binding mechanism to ‘end plastic pollution’. That being said, it is not possible to completely eliminate plastics as a substance, or its many derivative products from our lives entirely. Plastics will continue to be in use even after this treaty. But the treaty will (and should) aim to significantly reduce production of plastics, eliminate problematic plastics such as SUP, Multi-Layered Plastics and toxic chemical additives which impact human and animal health. While GPT can provide an international framework for regulating plastic production and usage, it is up to the individual nations to develop a strong national action plan, set ambitious targets and create a robust enforcement mechanism. There needs to be a systemic change which shifts the narrative and the burden of plastic pollution from end consumers and waste workers to the upstream petrochemical and Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) industries.