28 November 2022, Punta del Este - At the Punta del Este Convention and Exhibition Centre on Monday, the eloquent moves by a Uruguayan tango pair, backed by a mini-orchestra, set the scene for five days of the first session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC1) to frame a global legally binding instrument, covering the whole life cycle of plastics.
More than 2500 delegates have descended upon the Atlantic Ocean city for the negotiations taking place amidst the excitement of the Football World Cup in the soccer-mad country. The official opening took place as Uruguay was gearing up for an all-important and must win Football World Cup match against Portugal at the Lusail Stadium in Saudi Arabia.
In addressing the delegates at the plenary, the President of Uruguay, His Excellency Mr Luis Lacalle Pou and the country’s Minister of Environment, Hon. Nelson Adrián Peña Robaina, said that while the Football World Cup brings such passion and joy to Uruguayans, and all football fans, they want the city of Punta del Este to be remembered as the place where “a fit for purpose” treaty on plastics was born.
“To make this happen, all of us in this room today have roles and responsibilities,” His Excellency Pou said. “We have to give our communities and our countries a reason to be optimistic. We want these negotiations to be meaningful and successful.”
Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, Ms Inger Andersen, concurred calling for the negotiations to be “inclusive” so that it addresses the concerns of all countries and stakeholders. She spotlighted the plight of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) who have been left to bear the brunt of the plastic pollution crisis they had contributed very little to. In calling on INC1 to ensure adequate financial and technical assistance for developing countries, Ms Andersen referred to the uninvited nature of the plastic pollution on the Pacific.
“A key lesson from other agreements is that, for us to succeed is that while much action can be done at home through national policies and actions, developing countries will need support: with technology, with skills and, yes, with finance,” she said.
“This is important for many nations, but particularly for Small Island Developing States (SIDS). These states import plastics and lack waste management systems, but we also need to understand that much of the plastic arrives on their shores, uninvited. But, with support – including on building the skills of local repairers and recyclers – SIDS can create a localised circular plastics economy that reduces dependence on imports.”
At INC1, the delegates and negotiators have several key aspects to focus on to meet the 2024 deadline. Ms Andersen highlighted three other key areas to build a successful instrument.
“First, we must build an instrument broad enough and deep enough to cover the whole plastics problem, while also ensuring that all countries can participate. We must eliminate and substitute problematic and unnecessary plastic items. Ensure that plastic products are designed to be reusable or recyclable. Ensure that plastic products are circulated in practice, not just theory. Manage plastics that cannot be reused and make sure that we talk about reductions or alternatives along the production chain,” she said.
“Secondly, be informed by science and work with stakeholders to build a new plastics economy. Clearly the deal must lean heavily on science to identify hotspots for action, but plastic pollution is everywhere and affects everyone.
“Third, let’s learn from other multilateral agreements, work with them and also innovate in the multilateral space. The Montreal Protocol, the Basel, Rotterdam, Stockholm and Minamata Conventions, and others beyond the environmental arena, all provide experiences to build on. But this agreement must also dovetail with agreements on oceans, biodiversity, climate change, health, and social issues.
“While learning from past agreements, we must also look towards innovations as we forge a new, networked, inclusive, dynamic environmental deal. Let us be informed by the past and innovate for the future.”
The negotiations in Punta del Este is being attended by representatives from governments, the private sector and civil society. The meeting is taking place amidst a mounting plastic crisis that experts say threatens the environment, human health and the economy.
Research shows that humanity produces around 460 million metric tonnes of plastic a year, and without urgent action, this will triple by 2060. According to one UNEP study, over 14 million metric tonnes of plastic enters and damages aquatic ecosystems annually, and greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastics are expected to account for 15 per cent of the total emissions allowable by 2050 if humanity is to limit global warming to 1.5°C.
Ms Andersen said the timing of INC1 represented a great opportunity.
“This meeting is sandwiched between the climate and biodiversity summits. This is a calendar issue, but it is also incredibly appropriate. Creating a circular plastics economy that ends plastic pollution is critical to the success of both the nature and climate agendas. It is critical to our success as a species,” she said.
“We need to show the courage, to listen to each other and avoid pitching sectors and countries against each other. We need the courage to innovate. The courage to step out of our comfort zones. The courage to lean-in. The courage to embrace the future. This is how we will get this deal done.”
Mr Gustavo Meza Cuadra, Director of Diplomatic Academy for Peru, who was elected to Chair the meeting, encouraged active and constructive engagement from delegates.
The first Intergovernmental negotiating committee to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment is taking place in Punta del Este, Uruguay from 28 November–2 December 2022.
The Pacific Islands are represented by Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu through the support of the Government of Australia and the United Nations.
They are supported by the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) with financial assistance from the Government of Australia. SPREP is working with partners the Office of the Pacific Ocean Commissioner, University of Newcastle, Environmental Investigation Agency, Centre for International Environmental Law, University of Wollongong, WWF and Massey University.