Plastic waste, sculpture, INC-4 negotiations
Plastic waste sculpture outside INC-4 negotiations in Ottawa, April 25, 2024. Photo credit: Mitchell Beer / The Energy Mix

As international negotiations wound up in the early hours last Tuesday morning, the United Nations declared progress and expert observers blamed an army of aggressive industry lobbyists for “weak compromise” on an agreement to tackle plastics pollution.

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As international negotiations wound up in the early hours last Tuesday morning, the United Nations declared progress and expert observers blamed an army of aggressive industry lobbyists for “weak compromise” on an agreement to tackle plastics pollution, to one degree or another.

“For the first time in the process, negotiators discussed the text of what is supposed to become a global treaty,” The Associated Press reported at 3:25 a.m. “Delegates and observers at the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution (INC-4) called it a welcome sign that talk shifted from ideas to treaty language at this fourth of five scheduled meetings.”

“We came to Ottawa to advance the text and with the hope that [countries] would agree on the intersessional work required to make even greater progress ahead of INC-5,” UN Environment Programme Executive Director Inger Andersen said in a release. “We leave Ottawa having achieved both goals and a clear path to landing an ambitious deal.”

“We took a major step forward after two years of lots of discussion. Now we have text to negotiate,” said Björn Beeler, international coordinator for the International Pollutants Elimination Network. “Unfortunately, much more political will is needed to address the out of control escalating plastic production.”

The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), one of the main civil society groups following the treaty talks, said the results fell far short of what’s needed.

“In Ottawa, we saw many countries rightly assert that it is important for the treaty to address production of primary plastic polymers,” CIEL Director of Environmental Health David Azoulay said in an overnight release. “But when the time came to go beyond issuing empty declarations and fight for work to support the development of an effective intersessional program, we saw the same developed Member States who claim to be leading the world towards a world free from plastic pollution, abandon all pretense as soon as the biggest polluters look sideways at them.”

“The United States needs to stop pretending to be a leader and own the failure it has created here,” said CIEL President Carroll Muffett. “When the world’s biggest exporter of oil and gas, and one of the biggest architects of the plastic expansion, says it will ignore plastic production at the expense of the health, rights, and lives of its own people, the world listens. Even as the US signaled to the G7 that it would commit to reduce plastic production, it intentionally blocked efforts to do that in the global talks most relevant to the issue.”

Greenpeace USA called the outcome a “weak compromise” in an email release. Despite best efforts by countries like Rwanda and Peru, “we are heading towards disaster and with time running out,” said head of delegation Graham Forbes.

As expected, AP says the “most contentious” issue in the negotiations was “the idea of limiting how much plastic is manufactured. That remains in the text over the strong objections of plastic-producing countries and companies and oil and gas exporters. Most plastic is made from fossil fuels and chemicals.”

But while preparations for the next round of negotiations “will focus on how to finance the implementation of the treaty, assess the chemicals of concern in plastic products, and look at product design,” the news agency adds, “Rwanda’s representative said they ignored the elephant in the room by not addressing plastic production.”

That controversy “is no accident — reducing plastic production poses a direct threat to the plastic industry’s long-term financial interests,” CIEL writes.

Reshaping Plastic Supply Chains

For Canada, which currently subsidizes plastic production and exports millions of kilograms of plastic waste each month, an effective treaty could eventually reshape supply chains for plastic products and packaging, and for processes and chemicals used for making plastic, Karen Wirsig, senior program manager for plastics at Environmental Defence Canada, told The Energy Mix earlier in the negotiations.

“I think if we’re all rowing in the same direction on plastic, it is much more likely that we will see shifts to more sustainable practices,” Wirsig said.

“A global treaty that sets some parameters around all of this stuff will affect Canada,” she added. “It will mean we will make and use less plastic, and that will be good for our health and our environment — and it will be really a pressure point to shift.”

But that hope seemed to dim as the Ottawa negotiations progressed.

The three preceding rounds of negotiations began with a March, 2022 mandate endorsed by 175 nations to develop a legally binding treaty on plastics pollution by the end of 2024. INC-4 aimed to advance an existing treaty text that was developed during the third round of talks in Kenya last fall, so that it could be finalized at the last meeting, to be held towards the end of this year in Busan, South Korea.

But taking that step will also depend on determining the treaty’s scope, a current point of controversy as countries disagree about whether it should include limits on plastic production or only address consumption.

At the start of the week’s negotiations, Canadian Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault announced a national registry for tracking plastic production and pollution as a first step for acting on the country’s plastic pollution. But while Canada is considered a “high ambition” country — along with 64 others — for pushing for a legally binding treaty, Wirsig said there was a lot of “waffling” through the week from Guilbeault, in contrast to the “much more clear and unambiguous and straightforward approach on an ambitious global plastics treaty” that was expected from Canada.

Guilbeault has indicated that a cap on production may be too complicated for a global treaty. He has said Canada is “not opposed to the concept of a production cut,” but also questioned whether it is feasible to enforce a “plastic cap” globally. He has pointed to other options like single-use plastic bans and standards requiring minimum amounts of recycled content in new plastics, reported The Canadian Press.

“I’m just not sure how we would do it,” Guilbeault said. “And I think there are other ways of achieving a goal like that without going through what could be a very difficult and not too constructive process.”

Through the week, meanwhile, plastic producing countries like China and Saudi Arabia pushed to limit the treaty’s scope. There was also a strong presence of nearly 200 fossil fuel and plastic lobbyists at INC-4 trying to steer the final text to be favorable for the industry. For example, Stewart Harris spoke on behalf of the International Council of Chemical Associations to call for a treaty that focuses on “circularity,” or recycling plastic and reuse.

“We want to see the treaty completed,” Harris said. “We want to work with the governments on implementing it. The private sector has a role to play.”

Wirsig, who was present at the event, told The Energy Mix the strong showing of lobbyists was affecting negotiations as the petrochemical industry found itself “fighting for its life.”

“There’s lobbyists on country delegations, there’s lobbyists in the room all the time, there are lobbyists meeting with all kinds of delegations,” she said. “It really is a zero sum game here, and unfortunately [the petrochemical lobby] has way too much power in this kind of forum and generally in public policy around the world.”


One conference observer told The Mix that an industry representative tried to tell them plastics carry no health or environmental impact.

Bethanie Carney Almroth, an ecotoxicology professor at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg who co-leads the Scientists’ Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty, “said scientists were being harassed and intimidated by lobbyists,” AP writes. “She reported to the UN that a lobbyist yelled in her face at a meeting.”

“We are in the presence of an industry with a well-known playbook for jeopardizing the ambition of environmental and social negotiations,” said Delphine Lévi Alvarès, CIEL’s global petrochemical campaign coordinator. “For two years, the majority of negotiators have come to the table in good faith, but we are facing an industry that fights dirty. Ottawa was the sad scene of intimidation of female delegates who are challenging fossil fuel and chemical interests. If countries want to get something out of this process, they’re going to have to challenge this petromasculinity.”

Canadian environmental organizations like Environmental Defence spent the week trying to move negotiations towards an ambitious outcome that is legally binding, non-voluntary, and maintains limits on production. They were joined by activists from around the world advocating on behalf of communities that have been affected by plastic pollution.

Among them was Aeshnina Azzahra, an activist from Indonesia, who called on Canada to stop sending its plastic waste abroad to be dumped in countries in the Global South. Also present were Louisiana and Texas residents from communities near petrochemical facilities that are causing air and water pollution, and members of an Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus who said microplastics and pollution are contaminating their food supplies and threatening their ways of life, reported the Associated Press.

Though a final treaty is expected in November, whether it effectively addresses plastic pollution will depend on the measures it includes and how much is compromised.

“The lowest common denominator right here is a treaty that is totally voluntary, one that deals with waste management, basically,” Wirsig said.

“That is not a treaty that is going to stop plastic pollution worldwide, or even protect the climate from the warming impacts of plastics. And it certainly won’t protect public health, both at the production and receiving ends of plastic waste.”

This story by Christopher Bonasia and Mitchell Beer was originally published by The Energy Mix and is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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