Children play on the shore of Manila Bay in the Philippines, which is polluted by plastic waste. Credit: Randy Olson, Nat Geo Image Collection. - Photo: 2024

A Mixed Reception at Talks on an Anti-Pollution Plastic Treaty

By Simone Galimberti*

KATHMANDU  Nepal | 5 May 2024 (IDN)– The fourth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-4), negotiating a draft treaty against plastic pollution, one of the growing environmental hazards, was held in Ottawa, Canada, 23-29 April.

But how did the talks end?

It depends. Certainly, you do not need to be an environmental activist to be disappointed by what was not decided during the last round of negotiations for an international treaty banning plastic pollution.

Basically, the most important issue, setting targets or goals to reduce the production of plastic were rejected.

On the other hand, instead, if you are a lobbyist for the Petro-chemical industry or a representative of a government from the Gulf region or from India, the negotiations, you will be right now on an upswing.

You were able to ably capture and re-contextualize some key languages used by environmental campaigners to prolong the viability of the plastic industry in the long term.

For example, the issue of plastic circularity.  It was originally intended to promote a sort of “coping” mechanism, a remedy of last resort, a more environmentally friendly and more conscientious way of dealing with plastic products. It was never considered as the end goal per se.

Rather as a steppingstone towards the much larger and definitely more ambitious goal of getting rid of plastic or if this were judged impossible to achieve, at least they were seen as instrumental towards reducing and limiting its use.

It is not surprising that the negotiations in Ottawa, officially the fourth meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-4) that is trying to hammer out a global agreement by the end of this year, were flooded with lobbyists from the Petro-chemicals industry as demonstrated by a report from Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL).

Some progress was made

The United Environmental Program (UNEP) issued a very nuanced press release painting some optimism on the final decisions taken in Ottawa, brushing things off about the fact that some progress has been made despite “big challenges ahead”.

In all fairness, some progress was made.

The draft text of the treaty was discussed and there was a decision to continue the discussions through so-called “intersessional work”, less formal talks before the next and supposedly final official round of negotiation to happen at the end of the year in Busan, South Korea.

Such discussions will focus on key issues like financing the implementation of the treaty, the assessment of dangerous chemicals in plastic products and product design.

Finding effective answers to them will be essential but at the same time the real relevancy of a binding treaty will be only assured if there are concrete measures to limit the production of plastics.

The fact that this agenda was completely derailed is what is hurting the most those who have been fighting for a treaty can be really be a transformative legal instrumental to safeguard and protect our planet.

Instead, as reported by Benjamin Shingler for the CBC, “Industry groups advocate for a treaty that focuses on recycling plastic and reuse, sometimes referred to as “circularity,” rather than limiting production.

The fact that corporate lobbyists were able to write a whole new narrative on issues like circularity was also highlighted by Erica Cirino, an author and campaigner for the Plastic Pollution Coalition in an interview we carried out with her last week.

In a follow up comment, Erica explained that she prefers to use the term “full existence” of plastics rather than using the expression “full life cycle” or circularity.

Plastic’s full life cycle

“Plastic is not and cannot be considered circular (there are always externalities such as pollution as well as significant energy use), so I prefer the other term” she explained via e-mail: “I like to use the term “full existence” because “life cycle” (the term used by the UN) confers circularity, and it is impossible to treat plastic in a circular manner. In Plastic Pollution Coalition’s communications, we are using both terms when needed so that people can understand”.

She continued: “Basically, the idea of plastic’s full life cycle means from the start of plastic’s existence beyond the end of its use, so from fossil fuel extraction, transportation, storage, and refining; to petrochemical processing, storage, transportation, and transformation into plastic; to plastic manufacturing, use, shipping, storage, disposal (covering all paths of disposal, from landfills to incinerators to recycling to waste exports), and pollution”.

Unfortunately, even the EU, on the paper, a supporter of the more progressive and transformative solutions, embraced ambiguity and was, overall, a disappointment.

The same could be said for the USA though perhaps there were no high hopes for the Americans to really be able to walk the talk on plastic.

But for the Europeans it was different.

After all, the EU is one of the major supporters of The High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution that among others, has set the goal of “restraining plastic consumption and production to sustainable levels”.

Perhaps the ambiguity of the EU could be anticipated by a statement made by Maroš Šefčovič.

As the Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal, is a key player within the European Commission and he was the one leading the EU negotiating team in Ottawa.

“Plastics are important in our economy and daily lives, but the serious negative effects on the environment and human health caused by plastic pollution must come to an end. The new global treaty must transform the way plastic products are designed, produced, used, and recycled.”

The high emphasize on recycling and so far, the winning position emerging in the negation are at risk of perpetuating the essentiality of plastic in our life forever because of the focus on reusing and recycling.

The key reading points would be the following:

“Yes, let’s ensure that there are no more harmful chemicals, let’s ensure clean plastic, let’s improve the packaging and perhaps let’s finally do away with single use plastic products but in no ways the core of the treaty should be about putting limits or caps on the production of plastic”.

There were pushbacks though.

Rwanda and Peru boldly defied this logic with an ambitious proposal of reducing plastic by 40% in 15 years but it was swiftly rejected.

Canadian Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault, himself a former environmental campaigner and the host of the negotiations, admitted his frustration and the real possibility that a final consensus on capping plastic will continue to remain out of reach.

“Cap on plastic production may be too complicated for global treaty” declared towards the end of the negotiations.

Plastic waste management

The risk is that we are going to literally have a “plastic waste management” treaty as explained by Graham Forbes, the Global Plastics Project Leader at Greenpeace USA.

As reported by several media outlets, Forbes was crystal clear in the fact that “ You cannot end plastic pollution if you do not reduce the amount of plastic we produce”

At least in Ottawa, the dimension of public health emerged.

Jen Fela, Vice President with the Plastic Pollution Coalition shared with me via e-mail:

“There was a big focus on the human health impacts of plastic at this INC, more so than at any other to date. In addition to discussions centered around the negative impacts of plastic production to frontline communities living near petrochemicals and plastics production facilities, there have been many conversations about the chemicals in plastics and microplastics in our bodies”.

Also encouragingly, a new initiative was launched, the Bridge to Busan coalition that does not want to give on having a bold and transformative treaty. The odds are against it, also procedurally.

Melissa Blue Sky, Senior Attorney at CIEL explained to me via e-mail the intricacies of the negotiations.

“The positions of petrostates do not appear to be shifting, nor are they likely to. Plastics extend the demand for oil and gas and thus there is substantial financial interest in maintaining plastic production and a plastics treaty that is fit for purpose is a direct threat to those interests”.

“While the petrostates are in the minority, there is currently procedural uncertainty on how decisions will be made. In the current structure, when it is time to make decisions, the Committee will default to decision-making by consensus – this would allow any one state to block progressive decisions. To maintain ambition, we will need to resolve this uncertainty and allow for the possibility of voting” she further added.

“Simply put, we need a Treaty that limits plastic production, ends production of toxic chemicals, and supports frontline communities most impacted by petrochemicals and plastic production.” Jen Fela, with Plastic Pollution Coalition, wrote me via e-mail.

Perhaps for once, we should all cheer on and support President Kagame of Rwanda who, in this occasion, is on the right side of history. But the onus will also be on President Yoon Suk Yeol who will host the last round of negotiations in November.

Will the South Koreans able to unleash a global diplomatic initiative, really creating bridges with a variety of nations, working in tandem with Mr. Kagame and leaders of South America to have a strong and game changing treaty?

Will Mr. Yoon, deeply unpopular at home, manage to break the hold that the so called “spoilers” nations have on the negotiations?  Can he persuade India and the USA to back an ambitious treaty?

Will the EU stick to its core values and really back the principles and values behind the idea of putting some sort of limitations on the production of plastic?

If re-appointed at the helm of the European Commission, will Ursula von der Leyen spend her political capital and do the right thing in Busan and really achieve a global New Green Deal on plastics?

“Real solutions exist today: We need leaders to support plastic-free, nontoxic reuse, refill, repair, share, and regenerative systems that end wastefulness at the source” Jen Fela said.

*Simone Galimberti writes about the SDGs, youth-centered policy-making and a stronger and better United Nations. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo: Children play on the shore of Manila Bay in the Philippines, which is polluted by plastic waste. Credit: Randy Olson, Nat Geo Image Collection.

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