Environment & energy, Trade and industry, International relations | The Pacific

8 September 2022

Important negotiations are ongoing to establish a global plastic waste treaty, but Pacific voices need support to ensure they’re heard, Trisia Farrelly writes.

There is consensus amongst Pacific Island countries and territories (PICTs) on the need for an effective and comprehensive binding plastic pollution treaty. PICTs do not extract natural resources for plastics production, and only a small volume of plastic products are manufactured in the region. Regardless, they are disproportionately affected by plastic pollution.

Plastics enter the Pacific Islands via multiple pathways – trade, offshore operations, transboundary oceanic and atmospheric flows, shipping, fishing, and tourism. Despite originating elsewhere, increasing amounts of plastic waste are accumulating in the region.

This has potentially dire effects on the oceans that Pacific states rely on for physical and socio-cultural survival. Plastic pollution threatens economies, food security, food safety, human and ecological health, air quality, and cultures. It increases biosecurity risks and exacerbates already untenable climate change impacts in the region.

Despite the known environmental and human health harms of plastics all along the supply chain, the region is under tremendous pressure to continue to import pre-production plastics and unnecessary and hard-to-recycle plastic products.

Key players in international trade regimes exerting pressure in the region include financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization as well as transnational corporations such as Coca-Cola and Nestlé. Moreover, regional free trade agreements like the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations Plus also make it harder for PICTs to prevent the entry of plastics into their waters.

More on this: Plastic? Poison

Thankfully, earlier this year, 170 United Nations member states endorsed a mandate for a new plastic pollution treaty: End plastic pollution: toward an international legally binding agreement. The scope of the treaty mandate captures the full life cycle of plastics and includes micro-plastics, with the aim of preventing further plastic pollution.

However, whilst there is support for the establishment of a treaty, the specifics of what it will contain are yet to be set out. As such, treaty negotiations will take place across five intergovernmental negotiating committees (INCs) over the next two years.

The agenda of INC-1 to be held in Uruguay in November this year includes the aim, objectives, priorities, definitions, procedures, and institutional arrangements of the plastic pollution treaty. PICTs will want to use this meeting to put forward their goal of ‘turning off the tap’ on flows of plastics into the region and to emphasise the importance of principles of prevention, precaution, polluter pays, and intergenerational equity in guiding treaty negotiations.

However, despite being disproportionately impacted by plastic pollution, PICTs are likely to face an uphill battle in ensuring that their priorities are addressed and over more powerful states and the plastics industry. As such, they will need effective coordination both across the region and with other small island developing states (SIDS) to amplify their voices in these treaty negotiations.

In order to further this goal, the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environmental Programme (SPREP) organised an INC-1 preparatory meeting for Pacific Island and metropolitan members like Australia in Suva, Fiji in August this year.

More on this: Real solutions for plastic problems

The workshop was funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and aimed to prepare and enable SPREP Pacific Island members to actively engage at INC-1 in ways that reflected the Pacific regional Declaration on Plastics. The workshop also supported the establishment of regional positions and negotiating positions with other SIDS.

At the workshop, one major concern for SPREP Pacific members was that their specific needs and priorities could be diminished and diluted when they are represented through the ‘Asia Pacific’ and Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) groups.

While the Pacific Island region shares some of the challenges of these broader collectives, the socio-cultural, historic, political, economic, and ecological contexts of PICTs are vastly different from those of other Asia-Pacific countries and SIDS.

To this end, Pacific members emphasised the need for a shared and distinctly Pacific voice at the five INCs to ensure the final text of the treaty affords PICTs the protections they need from increasing plastics contamination. To ensure this occurs, United Nations member states must ensure that equitable representation of those most vulnerable to plastic pollution are reflected in the adoption of the rules of procedure at INC-1.

However, ensuring PICTs have the ability to equitably negotiate will also depend on increased financial and technical support from SPREP and its metropolitan members, and the United Nations Environment Programme.

INC-1 will set the tone for all future negotiations toward a treaty to minimise the environmental, economic, and cultural catastrophe caused by plastic pollution. Ensuring that the priorities and challenges of those most vulnerable to the harms of global plastic pollution are not only heard but enacted in the treaty will ultimately benefit everyone

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