In the run-up to INC-4, which takes place in Ottawa later this month, Packaging Europe looks back at the Global Plastic Treaty’s development from day one – the key talking points, reactions from across the packaging industry, and where it stands today.

The Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee, or INC, originated in March 2022, when the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) oversaw an international vote agreeing to establish a global framework and targets to end plastic pollution.

In theory, this treaty will define standards of accountability, responsibilities, financing, material and chemical standards, and restrictions on imports and exports. This is hoped to create a harmonized standard, from which individual countries will roll out policies to meet the set targets.

Meetings are held every six months, with a total of five set to take place; the fourth will occur in Ottawa, Canada, from 23rd – 29th April. Stakeholders in business, science, academia, the informal sector, and civil society have attended the summits alongside political players.

A finalized draft text is scheduled for completion at the end of this year and set to be set into motion by 2025.


INC-1 took place in Punta del Este, Uruguay, between 28th November and 2nd December 2022. It sought to lay out the objective, scope, and structure of an international, legally binding instrument regarding plastic pollution.

Generally speaking, it was envisioned that the instrument would cover every stage of a plastic’s life cycle – the contribution of materials, products, substances, processes, and uses in the polymerization stage; feedstocks; the sources and exacerbators behind pollution; plastics entering the ocean; and legacy plastics.

Delegations called for the instrument to combat the impacts of plastic pollution on both the natural environment and human health. Management processes should not cause further harm to the environment, they continued, and the treaty should be feasible to implement.

Further calls were made for it to uplift circular economy approaches, human and labour rights, intergenerational equity, and a just transition.

However, attitudes differed regarding the form the treaty should take. Some felt that the text should be legally binding, which would involve the creation of core obligations and control measures; others advocated for a framework convention, wherein countries could develop their own national action plans.

Further suggestions proposed the idea of a hybrid treaty that implemented elements of both. Others felt that it was too early to decide on the instrument’s structure and recommended that its contents should be decided first – raising suggestions for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), polluter pays principles, methods of achieving transparency, and more.

Apparently, there was a general sentiment of urgency in setting ambitious targets and taking a full life cycle approach. Multiple delegations also raised the point that human rights should be protected in the final text – yet criticisms of the private sector’s influence on the negotiations also came to light, with many accused of contributing to the plastic pollution that the treaty seeks to overcome.

As the meeting came to a close, the INC Secretariat was tasked to prepare a document laying out options for an approach that would fully encapsulate the full life cycle of plastics. This was to include the objective, core obligations and substantive provisions, control measures, voluntary approaches, a means of implementation, and resultant measures that were both legally binding and voluntary.


Prior to the meeting, Unilever argued that businesses would be able to invest in long-term solutions if legally binding global targets were developed, specifically applying to all industry players with enough flexibility to account for national circumstances. Harmonized regulatory standards and policies across markets were also expected by the company to help scale up global reuse and recycling models.

Therefore, it called for a plastics treaty that would sever the industry’s dependence on fossil-based virgin sources, cut down on plastic production, and remove plastics that leak into the environment. Those that could not be phased out were to stay within a circular system and remain at their highest value through effective waste management, collection and processing infrastructure, and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes.

INC-2 was subsequently held in Paris, France, and built upon the treaty’s objectives, scope, and implementation. This included discussions around a ‘Zero Draft’ to patch over holes in the legislation and build the groundwork for further negotiations going forward.

Voting rights were also discussed, and an agreement was made for an interpretive paragraph for the Draft Rules of Procedure.

International governments were in general agreement that an ‘ambitious and impactful’ instrument must establish ‘consistent, effective, and binding rules’ around the life cycle of plastics. A number of states felt that these rules should be compulsory, with a voluntary agreement expected to leave room for individualized regulations and slow down collective progress.

A global ban or phasing out of ‘problematic’ polymers, chemicals, and high-risk plastic products was suggested by multiple Member States, as were reductions in the production and consumption of plastics; the bolstering of reuse and recycling; and the ‘responsible management’ of plastic waste.

So, too, did participants discuss the ways in which overproduction, overconsumption, and irresponsible plastic waste management could be tackled; the general consensus came down to reuse and recycling.

“To be effective in tackling plastic pollution, the treaty needs to be based on comprehensive circular economy measures including reduction, redesign and reuse and on legally binding global rules,” said the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in an exclusive statement to Packaging Europe. “These are critical to drive change at global scale to end plastic pollution.

“We welcome the progress made in the negotiations in Paris and the agreement by the Member States to develop a first version of the treaty text (a “zero-draft”) which will form the basis for the negotiations taking place at INC-3 in Kenya later in the year. The first draft of the treaty must reflect the ambition shown by many governments last week and include obligations and measures that drive reduction and innovation upstream because we can’t recycle our way out of the plastic crisis. 

“This treaty is a unique opportunity to drive global policy action and tackle plastic pollution and we remain committed to supporting the negotiations in the best way we can.”

In WWF’s view, though, certain Member States were challenging procedural rules that were agreed upon at INC-1. This reportedly stagnated discussions for several days, and the organization was cautious about alleged attempts to remove the option of a vote; doing so could apparently allow for one country to veto the text and stop a treaty from being established.

Furthermore, WWF criticized the decision to restrict certain summit attendees, like scientists and civil society groups, from observing or participating in the negotiations.

The negotiation closed with the Committee tasking the Secretariat with inviting submissions from observers by 15th August, and from Members by 15th September, regarding the points to raise at INC-3 – for example, the principles and scope of the instrument, as well as potential areas for intersessional work.

INC-3: The approach

A range of sectors chimed in to the conversation in the lead-up to the third summit in Nairobi, Kenya. For instance, Digimarc president and CEO Riley McCormack described the summit as a “historic opportunity” to “adopt language requiring digital marking of plastic packaging” – a move set to drive the Zero Draft’s objectives while bolstering the European Commission’s digital watermarking impact beyond the confines of Europe.

The Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty expressed its support for the Zero Draft, as it aligned with its own Vision Statement – more specifically, its aspirations for Reduction, Circulation, Prevention, and Remediation. Even so, it felt that continued negotiations could “further strengthen the draft legal text and create alignment on the most ambitious options”.

Legally binding provisions were recommended for the final treaty, as were the addition of technical annexes with a ‘start-and-strengthen’ approach.

Furthermore, it laid out the eleven priority areas that it hoped further discussions would cover. Among them were further clarifications to the Draft’s efforts to phase out, phase down, and restrict chemicals and polymers of concern. This included a specific list of substances and the extent to which they would be controlled or banned; phase-out dates, exemptions, and other considerations for specific sectors and applications; and harmonized information disclosure, as well as marking and labelling requirements.

It called for the specific definition of ‘problematic’ and ‘avoidable’ plastics through annexes and criteria that would be separated by sector and application and prioritize specific applications, including packaging. Dates for applicable control measures and registered exemptions, target dates and timelines, and a review process for any future amendments were to be included.

Plastics and products should be held to generic design principles that would ensure their safety, durability, refill or reusability, repairability (where relevant), and environmentally sound end-of-life disposal, the list continued.

Designing for reduction, reuse, and recycling should all be distinguished, as should the definitions of ‘technically recyclable’ and ‘recycled in practice and at scale’. Plastics without the relevant, existing recycling infrastructure were recommended for a complete phase-out.

The Coalition added that hygiene, safety, and quality management standards and guidelines should be included to streamline the global introduction of reuse systems; and that incentives should be put in place to encourage the private sector to invest in return and refill.

If it made recycling requirements sector-specific, the Coalition hoped that the Draft would come closer to effective ‘design for recycling’ and ensuring that packaging is ‘technically recyclable’. Guidance on the infrastructure and systems required to recirculate materials after use was thought to be integral to this goal.

Similarly, EPR was highlighted as a concept in need of further definition in order for companies to be held responsible for the collection and processing of the plastics they place on the market. The Coalition encouraged the introduction and availability of EPR guidelines, toolboxes, system assessments, and other resources and support.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation that its New Plastics Economy Global Commitment – led in cooperation with UNEP since 2018 and backed by over 1,000 organizations – would be a ‘key force’ in informing and complementing the treaty’s development. Yet, most of its business signatories were expected to miss targets to introduce reusable, recyclable, or compostable packaging across their entire packaging ranges by 2025.

“The international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution currently being negotiated, alongside accelerated business action, are now needed,” said Sander Defruyt, Plastics Initiative lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. “We can’t pick or choose from either of these measures – both are crucial to ensure progress is pushed further and faster.”

A short while later, the Foundation’s executive lead of Plastics and Finance, Rob Opsomer, expressed similar sentiments. Despite believing in the possibility of taking ‘meaningful strides’ towards the eradication of plastic waste, he cautioned that voluntary action would not be enough to overcome plastic pollution; nor did he think enough organizations were taking it upon themselves to reduce their consumption of plastics, and even those that were would likely miss their targets.

‘Ambitious’ and ‘binding’ policy should come hand-in-hand with an increase in voluntary action, he stated, emphasizing that “both parts are crucial”. He praised the creation of the Zero Draft and underlined that bringing an end to plastic pollution should remain the end goal throughout the negotiation process.

The Natural Polymers Group – consisting of Xampla, Notpla, Loliware, Traceless, MarinaTex, Zerocircle, and Plantsea – originally formed to propose natural materials like plants and seaweeds as alternatives to fossil plastics. Looking ahead to INC-3, it called for participants to clearly define plastics and non-plastic alternatives and build upon the criteria for circularity; in its view, all these developments should forefront the perks of natural polymers during end-of-life treatment.

Another coalition, the Plastic Footprint Network, also came forward with a unified methodology designed to measure plastic footprints by assessing micro- and macro-plastic leakage and weighing up proposed solutions to unlock outcome-based plastic mitigation. Making its debut in the week before INC-3, its intent to help global organizations quantify the impact their plastics have on the environment came alongside a desire to align itself with the Zero Draft.

In particular, the methodology sought to “ensure mandatory disclosures from businesses, including the financial sector, on their activities and financial flows from all sources related to plastic pollution and related sustainable finance practices”.

The Network’s Vision Statement went on to support the inclusion of ambitious plastic pollution targets in the Treaty, alongside mandatory disclosure and its centralization.

Sarah Perreard, co-CEO, EA Earth Action & Plastic Footprint Network, commented: “I now urge the delegates present at negotiations in Nairobi to take note of what has worked when standardizing carbon footprint measurements, and ensure that true and lasting plastic pollution mitigation is delivered, while supporting a transition to circular models for global plastic use. This will help deliver a global framework that tackles plastic pollution at every stage of its lifecycle and steer the world away from the current crisis we experience.”

In the world of research, Zero Waste Europe, Searious Business, and National Hawker Federation presented a study indicating that plastic waste would undergo an 86% decline if street vendors in Kolkata, India – of whom there are around 80,000 – transitioned into reusable systems. The benefits would go beyond single-use plastics, they argued, and bring about social and economic improvements for the country.

The data led the companies to implore the Indian delegation to push for a legally binding and time-bound treaty featuring strong production controls, ambitious reuse and refill targets and guidelines, and measures to uplift workers and communities from all areas of the plastics supply chain – not only their safety, but also their quality of life.

INC-3: The response

Finally, we come to INC-3 itself. Incidentally, the Sustainable Packaging Summit 2023 took place at the same time. Our very own Tim Sykes sat down with Stephanie Northen, research associate at the University of Portsmouth’s Global Plastics Policy Centre, and Ulrike Sapiro, chief sustainability officer at Henkel – and opened up the conversation to speakers attending virtually from Nairobi: CEO and founder of Searious Business; Yoni Shiran, partner at Systemiq; and Jodie Roussell, global public affairs lead for Packaging Sustainability at Nestlé.

The speakers offered up their perspectives on the ideal outcomes of the summit from a range of sectoral perspectives, ranging from corporate to academic to NGO.

After the Summit, the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty approved of the efforts of many delegations to develop a ‘comprehensive and robust treaty’ covering the entire life cycle of plastics – yet it was apprehensive about the way some participants focused on downstream measures. Such Enhanced product design, scaled-up reuse and refill systems, and the removal of plastics and chemicals of concern were among the upstream developments that, in its view, should have taken priority.

It underlined that recycling and waste management alone cannot eradicate plastic waste and criticized the removal of key revisions regarding primary plastic polymers, the identification of polymers and chemicals of concern, and a definition of ‘problematic’ and avoidable plastics in alternative text proposals. Disagreements surrounding intersessional work were feared to slow down potential progress.

Further consultations, whether formal or informal, were recommended as the Coalition looked ahead to INC-4.

Another statement from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation read: “We are encouraged that many Member States taking part in the third round of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3) in Nairobi expressed support for ambitious provisions, including the elimination of plastic products that are commonly identified as problematic, the emphasis on product design, and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). All these elements are essential to eliminate plastic pollution.

“Additionally, there was support from many Member States for measures that enable a fair, equitable, and inclusive transition, which we support.

“However, we were concerned by some calls to limit the scope of the treaty to downstream measures only, including through removal of treaty provisions on primary plastic polymers. We also hope that treaty text on reuse can be expanded to go beyond product design. To enable the necessary system transformation to scale reuse, it is vital to also establish suitable infrastructure and make the economics work.

“Overall, there was limited formal progress at INC-3 with no mandate for either a formal programme of intersessional work or for the development of the next version of the “zero draft” treaty text. Without these being in place, it will be even more challenging to agree an effective and ambitious treaty in the final two rounds of negotiations.”

Searious Business’ Willemijn Peeters was openly critical of what she alleged to be “deliberate delays” regarding “important decisions” in the negotiation process, leading to “palpable” frustration.

She went on to describe the summit’s focus on EPR as a means of “keeping discussions safely away from anything too controversial, like a cap on production”. Nevertheless, she approved of its inclusion in the conversation, believing it to be a “vital mechanism” in establishing national action plans.

So, too, did she praise the conversation around reuse. In her view, it was a topic that had been neglected in the past, and its prominence at INC-3 marked a step forward in the discussion around sustainability-based legislation.

She noted the prevalence of harmonization in ‘various meeting rooms outside the building’, with the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty encouraging the creation of unified rules, definitions, and instruments. Indeed, she connected this to a general industrial desire for clear, definite, legally binding and international global rules to level the playing field and streamline progress.

On the other hand, the exact form that intersessional work would take remained up for debate. Peeters asserted that “the impetus for change must extend beyond sluggish diplomacy” if progress was to be made in the limited time left.

“Both businesses and individual nations have the power to lead by example,” she added, “setting industry standards and creating a ripple effect that transcends these bureaucratic delay tactics.”

The World Economic Forum was also disappointed in a series of alternative text proposals that, in its view, narrowed the treaty’s focus down to downstream waste management; and in the failure to agree on the shape of intersessional work. It, too, called upon Member States to conduct informal consultations prior to the next round of negotiations.

INC-4: The road ahead

Now the fourth round of negotiations approaches, and WWF and the Plastic Free Foundation have commissioned a survey from Ipsos. The results suggest that an average of 85% of respondents want to ban ‘unnecessary, avoidable, and harmful’ single-use plastics with a Global Plastics Treaty – aligning with 82% of respondents in a similar study from Greenpeace.

While many recognized that bans alone cannot overcome the plastic pollution crisis, recommending the simultaneous introduction of reuse and recycling systems, 87% were of the opinion that single-use plastics should only be available in countries with the appropriate infrastructure to easily and safely recycle them. 90% added that harmful chemicals often utilized in plastics should be scrapped.

Additionally, 87% of respondents felt that manufacturers should invest in and provide reuse and refill systems, while 72% supported providing funding, technology, and resources to all countries to ensure a just transition.

For a deeper dive into the Interngovernmental Negotiating Committee meetings, have a look at our recent report, where we unpack plastic packaging regulation across continents and what each region might contribute to a Global Plastics Treaty.

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Report: The ultimate guide to global plastic sustainability regulation 

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The Brief: Using ocean-bound plastic in packaging – how, why and should we?