The UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution – Explained, pointwise

For 7PM Editorial Archives click HERE

The first session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-1) concluded on December 2, 2022 in Punta Del Este (Uruguay). The Committee has been tasked with developing an international legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution (UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution). The INC-1 has been formed under the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) Resolution passed in March 2022, that had voted to formulate an international legally-binding instrument by 2024 to end plastic pollution. Plastic Pollution has become a global menace. The UNEA resolution identifies the threat that plastic pollution poses to human health and all environments. It is focused on the need to undertake measures throughout the lifecycle of plastics in order to efficiently reduce their negative impact. A legally binding treaty is expected to push countries to take all possible steps to check plastic pollution.

What is the extent of Plastic Pollution?


Plastic pollution is a global problem. According to UNEP, Approximately 7 billion of the 9.2 billion tonnes of plastic produced from 1950-2017 became plastic waste, ending up in landfills or dumped. According to OECD, Plastic waste more than doubled to 353 Million Tonnes (MT, in 2019) from 156 MT (in 2000). By 2019, 109 MT had accumulated in rivers and 30 MT in oceans.

Plastic accounts for 85% of all marine litter. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) predicts that the amount of plastic in the ocean will nearly triple by 2040, adding 23 MT to 37 MT more waste every year. According to the philanthropic Minderoo Foundation (Australia), the cost of plastic pollution to society (including environmental clean-up and ecosystem degradation) exceeds US$ 100 billion a year.

According to various studies, plastic debris affects 86% of all sea turtle species, 44% of all seabird species, and 43% of all marine mammal species.

Marine Plastic Pollution UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution UPSC

Source: Our World in Data


According to CPCB reports, Plastic contributes to 8% of the total solid waste, with Delhi producing the maximum quantity followed by Kolkata and Ahmedabad. Only 60% of the total plastic waste is being recycled.

The seas near Mumbai, Kerala and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are among the worst polluted in the

According to CSE report titled ‘The Plastic Life-cycleplastic has gradually replaced the alternate forms of packaging like metal, paper and glass, leaving consumers with the option of buying utilities packaged in plastic. Most of the plastic used in India today is for packaging and a major proportion of this is single-use plastic and might not be recyclable.

Most of India’s plastic waste is leaking in the environment or dumped in open dumpsites (67%). 20% of the plastic waste is being channelised for end-of-life solutions like co-incineration, plastic-to-fuel and road making, and 12% is being recycled.

What is the need for the UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution?

First, the impacts of plastic pollution are becoming grave. Plastic pollution is threatening land- and marine-based ecosystems. Exposure to plastics can harm human health, potentially affecting fertility, hormonal, metabolic and neurological activity.

Second, globally, Plastic production is rising rapidly. Plastic production increased from 2 million tonnes in 1950 to 348 million tonnes in 2017. Plastic manufacturing has become a global industry valued at US$ 522 billion, and is expected to double in capacity by 2040. This will further damage the environment.

Third, Plastic pollution transcends national boundaries. A major chunk of plastic waste ends up in oceans, which are part of global commons and beyond individual jurisdictions. Micro-plastics have been found in pristine environments of Antarctica. Hence a collective effort is required to preserve the oceans and global commons.

Fourth, in an increasing integrated world, actions by individual countries may be rendered ineffective in the absence of commensurate efforts by trading countries e.g., India may ban single-use plastics but single-use plastic materials can still enter India through imports.

Fifth, Plastics ending up in landfills are known to contribute to Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) which lead to global warming and climate change. By 2050 greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastic production, use and disposal would account for 15% of allowed emissions. This necessitates collective effort just like the UNFCCC framework.

Sixth, a legally binding framework, with measurable targets and periodic reviews will force the countries to take action.

Without effective action, global plastic production is predicted to triple by 2060 and large amounts of plastic will end up in environment and oceans. Regulating plastic pollution on a global level is therefore an important step that can contribute to the climate transition, as well as protect the oceans, the environment and biodiversity.

What has been the progress on the UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution?

The UNEA had passed the resolution in March 2022 to formulate an international legally-binding instrument by 2024. The resolution was agreed by representatives from 175 nations. The Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee has been established to negotiate the treaty. Its first meeting was held from November 28, 2022 to December 02, 2022. This was the first of five planned negotiation sessions. The next session is due to be held in France in the first half of 2023.

According to the INC mandate, the drafted UN Treaty on Plastic Change should be legally binding for all countries signing and ratifying the agreement, consider the entire life cycle of plastic, consider financial and technical assistance for countries requesting such assistance, and recognise the importance of waste pickers involved in collecting, sorting, and recycling.

The current mandate does not clearly acknowledge and indicate the impact of plastics production and disposal on climate change. It also does not talk about the unknown chemicals that are used in the production of plastics. Currently, more than 10,000 chemicals (additives) are used to manufacture plastics with close to 25% of the chemicals being proven to have adverse effects on human health. On an average, every plastic product had close to 20 additives.

What steps have been taken by India to control Plastic Pollution?

Union Government: (a) The Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation, which exists in European Union, North America, Latin America, and OECD countries had been introduced in India in 2022 for plastic packaging; (b) The Government has banned the use of Single-use plastics; (c) Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016 (Amended 2022) have been formulated to deal with plastic pollution; (d) The Swachh Bharat Mission 2.0 has listed plastic waste management as one of its key agenda; (e) In 2018, India’s World Environment Day celebrations were themed on beating plastic pollution; (f) The Ministry of Jal Shakti has requested various governmental departments to avoid the use of plastic bottles to provide drinking water during governmental meetings and to instead make arrangements for providing drinking water that do not generate plastic waste; (g) Shredded plastic waste has been used in laying roads e.g., Jambulingam Street in Chennai was one of India’s first plastic roads built in 2002. In 2015-16, the National Rural Road Development Agency laid around 7,500 km of roads using plastic waste.

Read More: Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules, 2022 – Explained, pointwise

State Governments: (a) The state of Sikkim has restricted the usage of plastic water bottles (in government functions and meetings) and styrofoam products; (b) The state of Bihar has banned the usage of plastic water bottles in governmental meetings.

Read More: Ban on Single-Use Plastic – Explained, pointwise

Other Steps: (a) Some supermarkets charge their customers for plastic bags, and in some places more efficient reusable or biodegradable materials are being used in place of plastics; (b) Some communities and businesses have put a ban on some commonly used plastic items, such as bottled water and plastic bags; (c) Technologies are available in India that can convert 1 Kg of plastic to 750 ml of automotive grade gasoline.

What should be the features of UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution?

Support and Enforcement: (a) There is need for realistic policies which must be properly followed and enforced. There must be clear actionable and legally binding targets and periodic reviews to measure progress in order to ensure implementation; (b) There is need to setup proper financial incentives and regulations to shape the right economic conditions for a circular economy, including for reuse models and recycled plastics. Financial support mechanisms should be setup to support developing and poor countries for transition; (c) There is a need to facilitate investments to scale relevant innovations, infrastructures and skills in countries and industries most in need of international support; (d) Public-private collaboration should be fostered for innovative solutions.

Balance Competing Opinions: There are competing opinions about how to resolve pollution: NGOs and lobbyists often want to ban single-use plastics and find safer alternatives. The plastics industry is of the opinion that pollution can be solved through improved waste collection. The waste-management and recycling industries push for more recycling. Experts suggest that the Treaty should evaluate all options and include all of these measures, with varying degrees from country to country. Many experts opine that banning the movement of plastic waste from high-income countries to lower-income countries will also reduce pollution.

Structural Change: The linear take-make-dispose economy needs to be replaced by a circular economy which forms the basis of the solutions to the plastic pollution problem facing the world. Four strategies that can guide the transition to a circular economy are: (a) Reduce the size of the problem by eliminating and substituting problematic and unnecessary plastic items, including hazardous additives; (b) Ensure that plastic products are designed to be circular— reusable as a first priority, and recyclable or compostable after multiple uses at the end of their useful life; (c) Close the loop of plastics in the economy by ensuring that plastic products are reused, recycled, or composted; (d) Manage plastics that cannot be reused or recycled (including existing pollution) in an environmentally responsible manner.

Read More: Circular Economy: Meaning, Benefits and Opportunities – Explained, pointwise

Address Marine Pollution: For global reduction of plastic litters and ocean pollution, there is need for improvement in proper plastic waste collection, treatment and disposal. Countries should agree, as part of the treaty, to place a surcharge on the creation of plastic products. This money could be used to fund recycling. Most treated waste waters are discharged into rivers or oceans, therefore, there is need for a ban such as Annex V to the International Convention for Prevention of Pollution from Ship (MARPOL) agreement, which will prevent plastic waste disposal into the sea.

Bioplastics as Alternative: Bioplastics can be produced from different biodegradable and non-biodegradable materials including weeds, hemp, plant oil, potato starch, cellulose, corn starch etc. Specific provisions in the treaty can promote use of bioplastics. Italy has enacted law that has made it compulsory for biodegradable plastic bags to be used for shopping.


Plastic pollution is perhaps the biggest threat facing after planet after climate change. UNFCCC has provided a systematic framework for collective action to address Climate Change. The UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution can provide a similar mechanism to combat plastic pollution. The UNEA has set a deadline of 2024 to agree on the treaty. All nations should support the negotiation process to reach a consensus as early as possible and stick to the 2024 deadline.

Syllabus: GS III, Conservation, Environmental Pollution and Degradation.

Source: Down to Earth, Down to Earth, The Hindu, Nature

Print Friendly and PDF