We need all hands on deck for a strong Global Plastics Treaty

Kristen McDonald
Date: May 10, 2024

Last week, the Pacific Environment team returned home from the fourth meeting of the United Nations Global Plastics Treaty negotiations (also known as INC-4) in Ottawa, Canada. This meeting brought together delegates from over 160 countries, as well as hundreds of industry, civil society, Indigenous Peoples, rightsholders, health advocates and other observers. Our team focused on pushing for stronger treaty leadership from the U.S. delegation and supporting our Asia-based partners attending the meeting.

Pacific Environment staff attend global plastics treaty negotiations in Ottawa, Canada

This round of talks took place right after global Earth Day actions on plastic and amidst growing global concern on the impacts of plastic on our environment, health and climate. So, was any progress made at INC-4, and what’s next as we prepare for the final round of negotiations later this year in Busan, Republic of Korea?

Where we are making progress 

On the upside, INC-4 negotiations proved that most countries are serious and committed to plastic pollution reduction, and ready for a globally binding agreement to tackle plastic pollution based on a full life cycle approach. This means addressing the impacts of plastics from fossil fuel extraction; to the conversion of fossil fuel into chemicals and plastic products; to the “end of life” phase such as litter and microplastics. Highlighting the increased alignment around the importance of addressing production, 32 member states signed the Bridge to Busan statement, which acknowledged the dire need for the treaty to do something to curb plastic production. We were also excited to see Rwanda and Peru present a specific proposal to include a binding target of 40% reduction by 2040.

OTTAWA, CANADA– On Sunday, April 21st, 2024, Melissa Aguayo talks about the need for a legally-binding treaty on plastic pollution as part of the March to End the Plastic Era, ahead of a meeting of the United Nations Intergovernmental Negotiation Committee on Plastic Pollution (INC-4). Photo by Ben Powless | Survival Media Agency

This increased ambition by member states to tackle production is backed by an overwhelming body of evidence and consensus among the scientific community on the need to curb production to effectively address plastic pollution throughout the plastic life cycle. For example, the latest research shows we need to reduce plastic production by 12-17% per year to stay within a 1.5 degree Celsius temperature change scenario. And recent modeling by OECD and Systemiq shows that even when isolating the problem of plastic leakage into the environment, the only effective solution is to stop making so much plastic. This is underscored by another recent study published during the negotiations which found that a 1% increase in production leads to a 1% increase in pollution. 

Indigenous Peoples delegates and frontline and fenceline communities impacted by plastic production spoke out again and again at INC-4 with critical stories of lived experience of the harms of plastic from upstream to downstream. This included testimony from Aamjiwnaang First Nation community members who raised awareness about the persistent and ongoing impacts of plastic production in their community: During the negotiations, members of Aamjiwnaang First Nation became ill due to exposure to high levels of benzene from the nearby plastic-producing chemical plant INEOS Styrolution in Sarnia, Ontario. Additionally, Arctic Indigenous Peoples attending the treaty talks for the first time spoke out on plastic’s triple threat in the arctic: microplastics in food supplies, health impacts from toxics, and climate disruption. 

We saw some progress at INC-4 on how the treaty should address hazardous chemicals in plastics, as well as problematic plastics such as microplastics and fishing gear. And in the final hours of the negotiations, delegates agreed to a proposal for intersessional work on these sets of issues. But these meetings will not include discussions on the critical issue of raw mateiral extraction and primary plastic polymer production.

Where we are still facing challenges

As we saw at previous INCs, a vocal minority of member states want to completely cut out addressing primary plastic production from the treaty – which would mean no chance for a treaty that reduces plastic pollution on any level. These “spoilers” include many petrostates and other petrochemical producing countries who, like at past INCs, used delay tactics to slow progress on the negotiations, sought to undermine the mandate for the treaty to address a full life cycle, and pushed hard against including primary plastic polymers in the treaty. 

Disappointingly, the U.S. delegation failed to exert any significant leadership to counter the spoilers. While offering just token efforts to move negotiations along, the fundamental U.S. position is still “no production cuts or binding targets.” This runs directly counter to the opinions of the majority of Americans as well as existing U.S. commitments to address climate and environmental justice.

The U.S.’s lackluster showing is no doubt tied to the influence of fossil fuel and petrochemical lobbyists who continue to have a strong presence at these talks. According to an analysis by the Center for International Environmental Law, nearly 200 industry lobbyists attended INC-4.

We witnessed well funded industry campaigns to influence the conversations with disinformation on plastic’s value to society, and waste management being the solution. Pro-plastic posters funded by industry were displayed at the airport, the Shaw Centre and throughout Ottawa on taxis and trucks. 

What Pacific Environment is doing and what you can do to take action

Pacific Environment and our allies across the globe are now gearing up to support intersessional work – both formal U.N. meetings, in-country efforts and planning for INC5. There is still great potential to land a strong Global Plastics Treaty, but it’s going to be a huge challenge. We need all hands on deck to push past the financially-motivated forces advocating for endless plastics growth.

In the U.S., we need a groundswell of public support for a strong treaty — both to continue sending the message to our government, and to reassure allies around the world that even if our leaders are weak at Busan, the majority of Americans are ready for fundamental changes and we support global rules and targets to get there.