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Global Plastics Treaty Talks: Yawning Gap Between Lofty Goals and Practical Effects

While negotiators praised progress made in this week’s session in Canada, industry remains concerned about efforts to restrict plastics production.

Geoff Giordano

April 30, 2024

5 Min Read
Shaw Centre, Ottawa
Art installation outside the Shaw Centre in Ottawa, where INC-4 was held this week.UNEP/Artan Jama

At a Glance

  • More than 2,500 delegates representing 170 member nations attended INC-4 in Ottawa this week, the largest gathering to date.
  • Concerns raised about “insufficient” human rights language.
  • Fifth and final round of talks scheduled for Nov. 25 to Dec. 1 in Busan, South Korea.

The fourth round of United Nations (U.N.) negotiations toward a legally binding global plastics treaty concluded in Ottawfa on Monday by producing an advanced draft text of the final instrument and agreement on work to occur between now and the final session later this year. 

The fifth and final round of talks, INC-5, is scheduled for Nov. 25 to Dec. 1 in Busan, South Korea. An open-ended Legal Drafting Group will form at that session to review the draft revised text from a legal perspective. INC-5 will be followed by a diplomatic conference where heads of state will sign the agreement.

Grab bag of issues under discussion.

The fourth gathering of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment, faced a tall task April 23 to 29 in parsing the multiplicity of issues the final document is being asked to address: Managing plastics along their entire lifecycle, extended producer responsibility, means of implementation and tracking, human rights language, and more.

The INC’s largest gathering to date drew more than 2,500 delegates representing 170 member nations and more than 480 observer organizations. Discussions surrounding the revised draft text ran the gamut from emissions and releases, plastics production, product design, waste management, “problematic” and avoidable plastics, financing, and a “just” transition.

Related:​​​​​​​Latest Global Plastics Treaty Talks End Largely Where They Began

Some difficulties surrounding the negotiation became clear in the late-Friday plenary of April 26 (available via U.N. webcast), with numerous member states noting the time constraints facing them. Further frustrations regarding internet and logistics difficulties were also expressed. Also noted at the Friday session was concern about “insufficient” human rights language, described as key to a “legitimate, equitable, and effective” plastics treaty.

Minderoo pushes for plastic pollution fee

Considerably more activity involving the quest for circularity took place outside the INC-4 negotiations.

From Australia’s Minderoo Foundation came the proposal for a plastic pollution “fee” on the producers of primary plastic polymers. Suggested “financial contributions” by these producers would be $60 to $90 per ton of primary polymer — “just ten cents per kilo,” according to the report, “The Polymer Premium: A Fee on Plastic Pollution.” The fee would “fully close the financing gap” that developing countries would face in implementing a treaty to end plastic pollution by 2040. The Minderoo Foundation bills itself as “a proudly Australian philanthropy that forges a fair future and seeks effective, scalable solutions to dismantle the systems that entrench inequality.”

Related:Mr. President, the ACC Would Like to Have a Word

Meanwhile, a group of global corporations and NGOs gathered in Ottawa to support corporate accountability tools to fight plastic pollution. The gathering, including SAP, EA Earth Action, Systemiq, and Delterra, aimed to agree on measures to share data about plastics and establish a corporate accountability framework.

Delterra and Systemiq created the Packaging IQ 2.0 data platform to help companies operating in the United States, Brazil, and Indonesia reduce plastic waste by providing economic, policy, and environmental insights for specific packaging formats and markets.

INC-4 was preceded by regional consultations and a conversation with observers, with Canada hosting a Partnerships Day and a Ministerial Day.

 “A global agreement on plastic pollution by the end of 2024 would mark one of the most significant environmental decisions and would be a first-of-its-kind agreement to unite the world around a shared goal to end plastic pollution,” said Steven Guilbeault, Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change.

Spirit of multilateralism.

The INC-4 negotiations continued to spotlight the divide between the treaty’s loftiest goals and practical concerns voiced by the plastics industry.

Related:What to Expect From Global Plastics Treaty Talks This Month

“We are here seeking to advance these negotiations and deliver a treaty because collectively we have recognized that multilateral cooperation — this INC process, a new legally binding international instrument — have a critical role to play in providing the effective and impactful solutions needed to end plastic pollution. The spirit of multilateralism is: ‘together, we are stronger,’” said Luis Vayas Valdivieso, Chair of the INC. “Let us negotiate with accountability and integrity — grounded in the scientific evidence and facts on the scale and urgency of ending plastic pollution. Let us also approach this task with optimism, that it is both necessary and possible for us to achieve this new treaty.”

Added Inger Andersen, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme: “We are seeing convergence on eliminating the uses that are problematic and avoidable. We will continue to need plastic for specific uses, such as renewable energy technologies. But there is growing agreement that short-lived and single use can go.”

PLASTICS: Missed opportunity if conversation revolves around plastics production.

Meanwhile, Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) President and CEO Matt Seaholm noted in an op-ed published by Waste360 that “… these negotiations are at a critical point, which is why our industry has continued to come to the table supporting the effort to achieve a collaborative, robust international agreement that will put us on the path to ending plastic pollution worldwide. The way we see it, this meeting is where actual progress can be made. These negotiations will be a missed opportunity if we spend the week talking about how to stop the production of plastic, which, unfortunately, has been a focal point at past meetings.”

While INC-4 received praise for progress made, cautionary statements about the scope of the final document continued. 

“The global plastic and chemical industries appreciate the progress governments have made toward a legally binding agreement to end plastic pollution,” said Chris Jahn, council secretary of the International Council of Chemical Associations, speaking on behalf of the Global Partners for Plastics Circularity. “We remain fully committed to the original timeline to complete a final agreement by the end of INC-5 in December. While INC-4 has made advancements toward a final text, there is still much more to do. We urge negotiators to continue making progress through intersessional work in the coming months.

“Our industry is fully committed to a legally binding agreement all countries can join that ends plastic pollution without eliminating the massive societal benefits plastics provide for a healthier and more sustainable world. We will continue to support governments’ efforts by bringing forth science-based and constructive solutions that leverage the innovations and technical expertise of our industry.”

Clear path to landing ambitious deal.

Concluded Andersen of the U.N. Environment Programme: “We leave Ottawa having achieved both goals and a clear path to landing an ambitious deal in Busan ahead of us. The work, however, is far from over. The plastic pollution crisis continues to engulf the world, and we have just a few months left before the end-of-year deadline agreed upon in 2022. I urge members to show continued commitment and flexibility to achieve maximum ambition.”

About the Author(s)

Geoff Giordano

Geoff Giordano is a tech journalist with more than 30 years’ experience in all facets of publishing. He has reported extensively on the gamut of plastics manufacturing technologies and issues, including 3D printing materials and methods; injection, blow, micro and rotomolding; additives, colorants and nanomodifiers; blown and cast films; packaging; thermoforming; tooling; ancillary equipment; and the circular economy. Contact him at [email protected].

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