Advancing Environmental Protection at COP10: Implications for Tobacco’s Toxic Plastics and Extended Producer Responsibility

Deborah Sy

In the ongoing battle against plastic pollution to protect the marine environment, a decision at COP10 on the implementation of Article 18 (Protection of the Environment) serves as a beacon of hope. Every year, some 4.5 trillion littered plastic cigarette butts contribute to the consistent ranking for the top plastic items in debris collected (e.g., 33% in beach clean-ups and 29% in harbours). Significant by count but relatively small in volume, cigarette butts, aside from being a persistent plastic pollutant, are also highly toxic contaminants that have been proven to kill a variety of aquatic organisms. Cigarette butt leachates are phytotoxic, cytogenic, neurotoxic, genotoxic, mutagenic, and teratogenic.

The decision, which expressly considered the work of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution (INC) and the “ongoing global efforts in relation to hazardous waste management policies/standards,” both reaffirms the resolve to protect present and future generations from the devastating consequences of tobacco consumption, and paves the way for a more comprehensive approach to dealing with tobacco’s toxic plastics. It acknowledges that the proliferating plastic filters of cigarettes are unnecessary and avoidable, and that problematic single-use plastics pose a serious risk to the environment, including marine life and ecosystems. It also notes that the “WHO has recommended an immediate ban on cigarette filters and vaporizers in its submission to the INC.” It calls upon nations to explore comprehensive regulatory options, which include an immediate ban concerning filters and related electronic devices, and urges them to protect tobacco-related environmental policies from the commercial interests of the tobacco industry. Nations are also urged, in relation to national and international policies on plastics and hazardous waste, to align with treaty objectives and efforts to address tobacco plastics including electronic devices.

Another notable point in the COP decision is its stance on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). EPR requires producers, including importers, to extend their responsibility for the environmental impact of their products throughout their lifecycle. While EPR has been recognized as a valuable approach to addressing plastic pollution, its implementation in the context of tobacco-related plastic waste presents unique challenges. The COP decision emphasizes the need to prevent tobacco industry interference in the implementation of EPR measures. It calls upon Parties to counter the so-called corporate social responsibility activities of the tobacco industry and ensure that the tobacco industry’s implementation of EPR systems does not inadvertently contribute to undermining the objectives of the WHO FCTC. The Global Tobacco Index presented at the side event of the COP highlights so-called CSR in the environment sector, by which the tobacco industry undermines advertising bans and allows it to access policymakers.

COP10 also instigated processes to seek justice for tobacco industry behaviour. The decision on implementing Art 19 (liability) recognizes “the potential use of liability in protecting the environment from tobacco harms” and urges nations to ensure that the work undertaken in relevant international fora on the environment (under which plastic pollution treaty negotiations fall) supports tobacco control and does not undermine it. Finally, the Convention Secretariat was requested “to participate in global fora to promote policy coherence between tobacco industry liability and the development of international law in relation to the environment,” since there are stronger liability regimes under international environment laws, and aligning with global trends in implementing the polluter pays principle could be a means to make the tobacco industry pay for its plastic pollution. Given this context, strengthened liability regimes in relation to tobacco-related environment laws should be within the scope of the COP-established expert group’s mandate, which was to, among others, “support Parties, upon request, to strengthen their liability regimes, including administrative measures, to ensure accountability and deterrence, improve access to justice, and allow for effective remedies for those affected by tobacco harms.” At COP11 in 2025, we expect to see further guidance through a report on “regulatory options regarding the prevention and management of waste generated by the tobacco industry and its products, including a ban on plastic cigarette filters and the management of hazardous waste from cigarettes, based on scientific evidence.”

As countries prepare for the upcoming fourth session of the INC in April 2024, the COP decision provides crucial guidance on how to address tobacco-related plastic pollution effectively through multisectoral collaboration and policy coherence. This represents a significant step forward in the global effort to combat plastic pollution, particularly in the context of tobacco-related plastic waste. By calling for measures to prevent tobacco industry interference and warning against tobacco industry-run Extended Producer Responsibility schemes, the COP decision sets the stage for more comprehensive and effective environmental protection measures. As countries move forward, it is imperative to heed the provisions of the COP decision and work towards a healthier, more sustainable future for all.

Deborah Sy is the Head of Global Public Policy & Strategy at the Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control in Thailand.

 

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