Crafting an effective treaty on plastic pollution: Emerging fault lines in the intergovernmental negotiations

GRID-Arendal, 2022, 37 p. (In English, French and Spanish)

On 2 March 2022, the United Nations Environment Assembly agreed to start intergovernmental negotiations to develop a legally binding instrument on plastic pollution.

The idea of a bottom-up treaty that provides a loose, multilateral framework for countries to communicate their national-level policies, versus a top-down treaty that stipulates a common set of policies for all parties, is likely to become a major fault line in the upcoming negotiations for a treaty on plastic pollution.

The distinction between top-down and bottom-up is a recurring issue in discussions about multilateral treaty making. Simply put, “top-down” indicates that rules are adopted at the global level and then implemented at the national level, while “bottom-up” indicates that laws and policies are developed at the national level and then typically reported to the global level.

Should the new treaty require all parties to adopt and implement a common set of control measures? Or should the new treaty be a framework for parties to implement nationally determined control measures? This report examines the distinction between a bottom-up and a top-down approach to treaty-making, and argues that a plastic pollution treaty containing core provisions with specific and binding global rules and standards will likely address the problem of plastic pollution more effectively than a bottom-up treaty based solely on country-driven approaches.