Interview with Dr. Klaus Wittstock, BASF SE, on the UN plastics agreement: "Reduction, bans or taxes on plastics are not expedient"
Dr. Klaus Wittstock is Director Industry Affairs and head of Environment Policy at the global chemicals Group BASF, and has been active for 28 years in various functions for the company. Since 2017, Wittstock, a chemical engineer, has been a member of the Advisory Committee of BKV GmbH, to which he previously belonged for over ten years as spokesman of the Technical Committee. We asked the plastics expert for his appraisal of the preparations for the global agreement of the United Nations, which aims to reduce the impact on the environment of improperly disposed-of plastic waste.
Dr. Wittstock, a draft for an agreement of the United Nations is currently being prepared at international level, which, after the final round of negotiations in South Korea, could come into force as early as 2025. What is the plastic industry's position regarding the ideas submitted so far for global regulations, which, for example, could introduce an upper limit for the production of new plastics?
We are indeed, in the plastics industry, seeing efforts being made by a group of stakeholders to counter both real and presumed problems with plastics by limiting the volume growth in an international agreement for plastics. We regard this approach critically because it fails to recognise the complexity of the challenges and could potentially lead to considerable disruptions and stress. After all, plastics not only involve problems, they also have considerable benefits, especially in connection with attaining climate targets. The use of plastics for home insulation makes an important contribution to saving emissions, while electric cars would be inconceivable without the use of plastics. Also as a packaging material, plastics make a vital contribution to extending the shelf life of foodstuffs. These examples of plastic applications underline the necessity for a comprehensive perspective that looks at plastics beyond their overall lifecycle – from their production, through utilisation, to the end of their lifecycle, and thus their return to the material cycle. It is precisely this that the previous drafts and positions of the UNEP also recognise, as do the majority of stakeholders, namely that we need holistic approaches to solving the problems.
From the point of view of the industry, how should the agreement be designed to tackle the problem of plastic litter in the environment worldwide?
From our point of view, there are far cleverer solutions than simply introducing bans in order to solve the major challenges in the context of plastics. Plastics are nowadays still predominantly produced from fossil raw materials. Through the use of circular raw materials – recyclate from mechanical recycling, substitution of fossil raw materials by chemical recycling, renewable raw materials or even CO2 – we reduce the dependency on fossil raw materials and, at the same time, contribute to climate protection. It is also possible to approach the littering of the seas and countryside in an intelligent way. In western countries, it is more a question of greater discipline in waste collection. In the south of the globe, a waste and recycling infrastructure often first has to be built up. It is also important here not to forget the so-called informal sector. In many developing countries, it is precisely this that ensures that disposal takes place at all. This means that the 20 million so-called waste-pickers worldwide also represent a very important interest group in the UN negotiations. The aim must be not to replace these waste-pickers from one day to the next through industrialised structures, but to involve them and guarantee them fair, well-rewarded and safe working conditions. One decisive point, however, is that the collected waste plastic that has been pre-sorted by hand also has a customer market. In other words, the building-up of a recycling infrastructure – whether mechanical recycling for sorted thermoplastics or chemical recycling for mixed and polluted waste – by industrial companies is key to driving forward both the collection and the substitution of fossil raw materials by recycling. A third topic that is brought time and again into the discussions is the question of additives and how and where they are regulated.
Here, the plastics industry takes a very clear stance: The regulation of chemicals does not belong in the plastics agreement, because that would lead to duplicate regulation alongside existing, country-specific, regional (REACH) and global chemical legislation (such as Stockholm, Basle, Rotterdam Convention). Furthermore, many chemicals are used both in plastics and in other applications, which is why looking at them solely from a plastics-specific perspective would fall short of the mark
At the next meeting in November in Nairobi, a first proposal, the "Zero Draft" is to be drawn up. The possibility here is to draft a general legal framework, which the individual states would then put into practice with their respective implementation measures. What do you think is probable and what is desirable?
The most interesting question as far as the procedure is concerned involves the interplay within the agreement between globally binding elements and national elements. Here, it is clear that oil-producing countries and threshold countries with rapidly growing industrialisation see things differently than mature economies like us in the EU. This area of tension led at the last international negotiations in Paris at the beginning of June to two days of legal discussion about the voting procedure, on whether a unanimous vote is necessary or whether a qualified majority can decide. It is difficult to imagine that a two-thirds majority can enforce drastic restrictions in plastics consumption against the will of highly populated nations such as India or China. In this respect, I expect a balanced compromise. National or EU-wide regulations can naturally also always go beyond the harmonised global requirements. What is important, however, is to prevent a soft agreement that allows countries, through long-term action plans without concrete measures, to make the aim of greater environmental and climate protection unattainable.
Dr. Wittstock, many thanks for the interview!