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Plan for the Ban: UNEP Issues Report Offering Insight and Guidance for World’s First Global Plastics Pollution Treaty

July 26, 2023 Environment Bulletin 6 minute read

This is the eighth bulletin in our “Plan for the Ban” series regarding prohibitions and increased regulation of single-use plastics relevant to Canadian businesses and companies doing business in Canada.[1]

The United Nations Environment Programme (“UNEP”) recently released a report entitled Turning off the Tap, How the world can end plastic pollution and create a circular economy (the “UN Plastics Report”) detailing how it proposes to end plastic pollution and change the plastic economy from one that is linear to one that is circular. Following the commitment of all UN Member States (including Canada) made on March 2, 2022 to create a legally binding global treaty to control and reduce plastics pollution and waste, the UN Plastics Report was issued to inform negotiations in the international community and examine the economic and business models needed leading up to the agreement proposed to be finalized by the end of 2024.

The UN Plastics Report examines the cause of plastic pollution and provides a roadmap for shifting from a linear to a circular plastics economy. Such changes, the UN Plastics Report provides, will enable countries to end plastic pollution while transitioning towards safer and more stable jobs and creating business opportunities.

This bulletin provides a summary of the UN Plastics Report’s findings and recommendations and provides an update on the pending international plastics pollution treaty. For more information on the March 2, 2022 resolution, please read our bulletin on the topic, which can be accessed here.

UN Market Transformation Plan

The UN Plastics Report describes the current plastic economy as linear. Plastics are typically discarded after one use and are ultimately disposed of in a manner where they may negatively impact human health and the environment. According to the report, plastics from commercial or household waste are most likely to end up as plastic pollution because they are usually used once or for a short period of time before being thrown away.[2] In contrast, plastics in a circular economy are reused, kept out of the ecosystem and remain in the economy for continued or repeated use.

The UN Plastics Report provides that the transition from a linear to a circular plastics economy would comprise of three main market shifts:

  1. Reuse: Accelerating the market for reusable products by replacing some of the most “unnecessary and problematic” plastic products with reusable alternatives. This action is identified as providing the best opportunity to reduce plastic pollution (studies estimate a reduction of 30% by 2040).
  2. Recycle: Accelerating the market for plastics recycling by ensuring recycling becomes a more stable and profitable venture for businesses. This requires there to be adequate feedstock available that can be recycled and used for new or repeated purposes to create a level playing field with “virgin” materials (studies estimate this could reduce the amount of plastic pollution by an additional 20% by 2040).
  3. Reorient and Diversify: Shaping the market for plastic alternatives to enable sustainable substitutions to avoid replacing plastic products with alternatives that do not actually reduce impacts, but rather only displace them (studies estimate this could reduce plastic pollution by 17% by 2040). Sustainable alternatives currently struggle to compete in markets with products made of “virgin” fossil fuel-based plastics owing to a number of challenges including cost, consumer demand, and lack of appropriate regulations.

For the purposes of the UN Plastics Report, “unnecessary and problematic” plastics and plastic products are those with low or no utility, such as over-packaging on products, those with short use period when a reused or different delivery model could provide the same utility, and those that can be substituted for more sustainable alternative materials. In addition, criteria such as hazardous chemicals in the composition, ability to contaminate or disrupt the recyclability or compostability of other items, and/or a high likelihood of being discarded or ending up in the natural environment are also relevant to such determination.

Economic Benefits

The UN Plastics Report provides that the major benefits from the transitioned plastics economy could result in job creation, investment and shift into new industries, reduced costs associated with the plastic lifecycle, and reduction in potential damage to human health and the environment by 2040. However, such change cannot be implemented in isolation due to the cross-border flow of plastics. It therefore requires harmonized international action to coordinate measures and obligations between nations and reduce the inflow of new “virgin” plastic material into the economy and the reuse and recycle of existing plastic products already in use or in the environment. Harmonization is also required to give industry certainty and allow businesses to reach targets by developing new initiatives and technologies.

Regulatory Interventions

The UN Plastics Report offers four pieces of guidance on how governments should establish regulatory instruments with respect to plastics in the future:[3]

  1. Establish baseline knowledge of plastics in the jurisdiction (such as import, manufacture, disposal and pollution) to understand what needs to be addressed and help monitor the results of legislation targeting plastics and plastic products.
  2. Consider objectives and policymaking principles and their impact on trade and trading partners (including import and export relationships, and impact on existing treaties). Ancillary impacts that may need to be considered include manufacturing specifications and labelling[4].
  3. Select appropriate regulatory approaches tailored to the situation and integrated with existing regulatory frameworks so that governments can properly enforce rules, including through a mix of instruments, some of which should have “teeth”.
  4. Participation, information and access to justice principles should be considered, including engagement with civil society, academics, the private sector and more. This will ensure that those affected are informed and consulted when implementing regulations that will impact business and daily life.

In addition, some of the recommendations build on existing instruments or agreements that are already in place or have recently been or are in the process of being updated to align with the UNEP’s plastic efforts. For example, one of the UNEP’s goals is to ensure that plastic waste is not exported to countries with insufficient waste management capacity. The Basel Convention and its plastic waste amendments[5] create the conditions for the global movement and trade in plastic waste to become more transparent and better regulated through control procedures and clarification of the convention’s application.

Next Steps for Global Plastic Pollution Treaty

The global treaty is currently on its way to its third Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee session in November 2023 with an aim to finalize a draft of the agreement by the end of 2024.[6] It is expected to be reflective of diverse alternatives to address the full lifecycle of plastics and plastic products, the design of reusable and recyclable materials and products, and the need for international collaboration.[7] Like other recent environmental-focused government announcements and international initiatives, the aim of the global treaty will be to mobilise public and private finance to grow economic opportunities, remove barriers to investments, facilitate access to technology, build capacity, and encourage scientific and technical research and collaboration.

We will continue to monitor the progress of this comprehensive global agreement and other Canadian regulatory developments with respect to plastics and plastic products that will likely affect many Canadian businesses and economies. Companies potentially impacted by such regulatory developments may wish to consider making submissions to the UNEP and/or Canadian regulators to ensure that their voice is heard as these developments progress.

If you have questions on how these changes may impact your business, whether directly or indirectly through your supply chains and global trade, please contact the authors of this bulletin.

[1]  Talia Gordner and Cody Foggin, “Plan for the Ban: Single-Use Plastic Bans are Rolling Out Across Canada – Are You Ready?” (September 2020); Talia Gordner and Cody Foggin, “Plan for the Ban: Canada Announces Plan to Tackle Single-Use Plastics” (October 2020); Talia Gordner, Julia Loney and Tess Dimroci, “Plan for the Ban: Our New Year’s Update of Single-Use Plastics Bans Across Canada” (January 2021); Talia Gordner, Julia Loney and Ralph Cuervo-Lorens, “Plan for the Ban: Plastics Classified as “Toxic Substance” Under Canadian Environmental Protection Act” (July 2021); Talia Gordner and Julia Loney, “Plan for the Ban: Canada Announces Timeline for Single-Use Plastics Prohibition” (June 2022); Talia Gordner, Julia Loney and Ralph Cuervo-Lorens, “Plan for the Ban: Canada Proposes Plastic Labelling Rules and Federal Plastics Registry” (September 2022); and Talia Gordner and Julia Loney “Plan for the Ban: New Consultation Launched for Plastics Labelling Framework and Federal Plastics Registry” (April, 2023).
[2] Ibid at 3-4.
[3] Ibid at 51.
[4] For more information on plastics labelling updates in Canada, see our bulletin “Plan for the Ban: Canada Proposes Plastic Labelling Rules and Federal Plastics Registry
[5] UNEP Basel Convention, “Basel Convention Plastic Waste Amendments
[6] UNEP, “Third Session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution” (2023).
[7] UNEP, “Press Release: Historic day in the campaign to beat plastic pollution: Nations commit to develop a legally binding agreement”

by Talia Gordner, Julia Loney and David Adjei (Summer Student)

A Cautionary Note

The foregoing provides only an overview and does not constitute legal advice. Readers are cautioned against making any decisions based on this material alone. Rather, specific legal advice should be obtained.

© McMillan LLP 2023

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