INC-3 in Nairobi: Navigating the Waters of the Future Global Plastics Treaty

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by Valentina Munoz Farías, Marine Litter and Communities

Last week, I was at the headquarters of UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) in Nairobi, Kenya, participating at the third session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3) for the creation of the future Global Plastics Treaty — a legally binding instrument aimed at ending plastic pollution, including in the marine environment.

I would like to share some reflections on this process, analyzing the expectations I had when I arrived and left from Kenya. To begin, I would like to clarify my position and priorities within the INCs. Sciaena is part of the Break Free From Plastic movement and, as such, we advocate for real solutions to end plastic pollution, particularly “upstream” measures, those at the beginning of the plastic life cycle, starting with petroleum extraction. These measures focus on reducing plastic production and consumption, and advocating for reuse and refill schemes. Furthermore, I have focused on provisions regarding microplastics and fishing gear and how these could be effective within a global treaty. Finally, on a more personal note, I am interested in provisions for a just transition in the treaty’s implementation and the consideration of more vulnerable groups, namely women and grassroots communities. That’s why, during INC-2 in Paris, I was invited to join the Women Major Group of UNEA, in line with the Fundación Mujeres de Mar principles and scope. It’s important to clarify that we, as members of civil society, can only participate in this process as observers. This is a meeting of the Member States, and it is up to their delegates to make the final decisions.

Moving on to the more substantive part of the matter, at the beginning of the week, it was not surprising to see a coalition of plastic-producing countries with “like-minded” ideas, led by Iran and Saudi Arabia, along with Russia, Bahrain, China, Cuba, among – according to them – “many others,” with the clear intention of obstructing the work of the INCs and diluting the ambition of the treaty. Despite this, there were no deliberate attempts to stall the negotiations by any of these Member States, as happened in Paris, but rather constructive work from early days in the week.

Three contact groups were established to review and analyze the different parts of the zero draft. I joined group 1, where they discussed parts I and II of the annex, focusing on objectives, definitions, principles, and scope, as well as technical/specific provisions of the treaty. Unlike INC-2 in Paris, there was a spirit of collaboration that promoted progress in the negotiations for at least the first five days of work. Several Member States supported the most ambitious options to address plastic pollution, reinforcing hope for an ambitiously effective treaty. Another positive point in INC-3 was the relevance of observers (us!), whose interventions were heard and valued by some of the Member States.

I highlight the power of the voice of the African Group, SIDS, and some GRULAC countries, who maintained determination in the negotiations despite limitations imposed by other less ambitious countries with significant conflicts of interest. As the days went by, the silence of these “like-minded” countries became increasingly suspicious, considering how vocal they had been during INC-2 in Paris. But eventually, they made themselves known, promoting mostly “downstream” measures, such as waste treatment and recycling, which we know do not work to end plastic contamination.

By the end of the week, these like-minded countries began to show their true colors. I’ll explain: Member States can submit suggestions to the commission’s secretariat regarding specific provisions of the draft. The strategy of these like-minded countries was to send an enormous number of suggestions, to the point where the updated text is extremely inflated, causing a “death by documents.” Something like impossible —or very difficult— to analyze productively and constructively. On Sunday night, due to the clear conflicts of interest of these countries, contact group #3 reported that they had not reached a mandate agreement for intersessional work, leaving us on shaky ground to move effectively until INC-4 in Ottawa. This work will then have to be carried out informally and with double the effort. The positive side of this is that this mandate could have been led by a group of countries that could have put these efforts at great risk.

Some more personal reflections: 

  • I continue to hear that we need—more—economic growth. But I don’t understand why, when we have everything. I am increasingly convinced that what we really need is economic stability based on social justice. Kenya has a national holiday for planting trees. Do we need more of that? Growth connected to the grassroots?
  • Despite collective frustrations and mental fatigue, the constant fighting spirit of our allies is incredibly powerful and motivating. I deeply appreciate being surrounded by this tireless group of people interested in the common good, to whom I express great admiration for this incredible selfless work.
  • The personal and professional growth of these instances is the best positive reinforcement and confirms once again that I have made very good decisions in my life.
  • These processes are super complex and often become difficult to understand and follow. It’s too much information, and much of it gets lost between translation and mental fatigue. It is strong and painful to see how we depend on delegates who often make decisions without having access to all available information, and others act under the influence of industry lobbying. Not to mention that conflicts of interest in these processes are real, super present, and very concerning. We can only continue to pressure our delegates, demanding transparency and disseminating reliable information based on technical and scientific knowledge.
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