It looks more likely than ever that there will be a plastic treaty by the end of the year, though it is unlikely to be as comprehensive as environmentalists hoped.

Representatives from 170 countries and 480 organisations met in Ottawa, Canada to develop a treaty to end plastic pollution. The fourth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) on plastic pollution, as its formally known, ran from the 23-29 April. This was the fourth such meeting with the fifth and final one due to take place in Busan, South Korea in November. The stated goal of these meetings is to develop an international legally binding treaty on plastic pollution by the end of the year. The short timeframe for this objective is meant to represent the urgency of the issue.

Progress was made during INC-4, which is an improvement on the previous three. A treaty is beginning to take shape though it is unlikely to be sufficient to tackle plastic pollution adequately. Lobbyists from fossil fuels exporters and plastics manufacturers seem likely to be successful in preventing restrictions on plastic production being on the treaty.

The plastic problem

Every year, 400 million tonnes of plastic is produced. 40% of this is single use plastic. Projections show plastic production is likely to double and possibly triple by 2050. Most plastics are made from coal or oil so their rising production hampers efforts to reduce the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.

The disposal of plastics is also harmful for the environment. Currently, there are five trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean. By 2050, it is predicted that the total weight of plastic in the ocean will be greater than the weight of all fish in the ocean.

Plastic in the ocean wreaks havoc on wildlife. Animals regularly get trapped in plastics. Smaller bits of plastic are often confused for food and when eaten, block their digestive systems. Each year, over 100,000 sea animals are killed by plastic.

Trash islands are also forming in oceans around the world. For example, the Pacific Garbage Patch between California and Hawaii. These are formed by currents picking up plastics and bringing them together into one spot.

On land, plastics also cause problems. Many areas have been contaminated by the extraction of fossil fuels for plastics or by plastic manufacturing itself. Much of the affected land are those of indigenous peoples. The Aamjiwnaang First Nation community are facing health problems because of benzene leaks from an INEOS petrochemical facility. 

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Signs of progress

There were definite signs of progress at this INC. That is more than can be said at the previous three where talks have been frustrated by debates over procedures rather than treaty policies.

A draft text for the final treaty was shortened. This will be the basis for negotiations at INC-5 in Busan. There was also an increased focus on discarded fishing gear and how to tackle this problem.

The major outcome of INC-4 though was the creation of two intersessional committees. These will continue between now and Busan and focus on the implementation and financing of a treaty and developing a criteria for harmful products and chemicals. They aim to generate proposals for the final treaty around these topics. Without this intersessional work, finalising a treaty by the end of the year would be a formidable task.

Room for improvement

Whilst progress was certainly made, there are a few causes of concern for environmentalists. Rwanda and Peru proposed an agreement to reduce the production of plastics by 40% of 2025 levels by 2040. This was backed by 29 countries but was omitted from the final draft text. It was opposed by many developed countries including the US and UK.

Instead of focusing on reducing the production of plastics, efforts seem to be on having a ‘circular’ approach. This looks at increasing the efficiency of recycling and reusing plastics. This is an approach favoured by plastic manufacturers and fossil fuel exporters, such as the ‘Like-Minded Group’ including Russia, China and Saudi Arabia. The circular approach is also supported by the US, UK and EU though it is criticised by many developing countries including the delegation for the Pacific Island nations.

There have been criticisms over the influence on the talks of the fossil fuel and chemical industry. Out of the 480 observer organisations, 196 were from these industries. This figure does not include representatives from countries that benefit economically from the continued use of fossil fuels.

What is going to happen next?

Some hope should come from the fact that progress was made. It now seems much more likely that a treaty will be agreed on than before INC-4. However, it is unlikely that the treaty will be sufficient to bring an end to plastic pollution.

The treaty looks likely to consist of agreements about disposing plastics and what chemicals should be used in the production of plastics. Though it is unlikely that scaling down plastic production will make it to the final treaty.

If you want to see the glass as half-full, there is still a meeting left to go with intersessional committees and private discussions happening in the background. Nothing is set in stone yet so some agreement on reducing the amount of plastic produced could still be reached.