Resource expert on plastic agreements: “The fronts have become clear”

Resource expert on plastic agreements: “The fronts have become clear”

Henning Wilts from the Wuppertal Institute still sees opportunities for a UN agreement. What Brussels decides on packaging is more important for Europe anyway.

Important recycling: plastic chips from a shredding machine in Nairobi, Kenya Photo: Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

taz: Mr. Wilts, did the negotiations in Nairobi fail?

Henning Wilts: No, you can’t say that yet. The draft contract, the so-called Zero Draft, was discussed in Nairobi. It was a kind of wish list that contained everything that the very different actors had in mind regarding the topic of plastic. There was no idea where we wanted to go with this agreement. It was therefore clear that the states could not agree on concrete measures.

The economist has been heading the circular economy research area at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy since August 2018.


At least the fronts have become clear: There are countries like Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran and India that see the waste problem as an issue for waste management. Others, including the EU, want to address the entire life cycle of plastic products, including bans and limits on production quantities.

Why do individual states manage to stop this process?

The issue of plastic waste was discussed for the first time at the UN level. In terms of procedures, we are roughly where we were in the climate negotiations before Paris; the principle of unanimity still prevails. One state or a small group of states can hinder the entire process. The negotiations will continue behind the scenes over the next six months, and a lot can still happen. I don’t think there’s any need to give up on the schedule to get a UN agreement in place by mid-2025.

If there is not a good global agreement as quickly as hoped, what political alternatives are there?

For us in Europe, what will be decided on the new packaging regulations in Brussels on Tuesday is much more important anyway. Of course, a UN agreement sends important signals and creates a global framework. But the Packaging Ordinance sets out specific requirements for the recyclability of plastics and the proportion of reusable solutions that supermarkets must offer – that goes much further than what was wanted to be set internationally.

Parliament will vote on its position on the packaging regulation on Tuesday. Is she ambitious?

There was a very ambitious draft that stipulated quantities for avoiding plastic, quotas for reusables and so on. But then lobbying attacked politics from all sides. Now there are many unanswered questions again, such as what role chemical recycling should play, in which plastics are melted down, mixed with chemicals and thus turned back into a kind of raw material for plastic. The industry strongly supports this. The process is energy-intensive and does not replace solutions that aim to avoid it. Even apparently sustainable replacement solutions that consist of half paper and half plastic are not really any better. Paper packaging often has just as big an environmental impact as plastic packaging, especially if it is coated. Another example is disposable aluminum packaging. They are not environmentally friendly, even if you can recycle them. There’s a lot going in the wrong direction right now.

Doesn’t sound particularly hopeful…

There are also promising approaches, such as the EU Commission’s “Green Claims Directive”. It should be passed next spring and prevent greenwashing. To this end, environmentally-related advertising should be regulated. This is important because many consumers want to shop sustainably, but don’t know how.

What can consumers do themselves about plastic waste?

Buying food in reusable containers is the best. Pay attention to the Blue Angel from the Federal Environment Agency, such products contain a lot of recycled material. Buy locally instead of online, so much less packaging is required.


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