The Government of Canada is doing its part to tackle plastic pollution, both at home and abroad, as it helps to chart a roadmap toward an ambitious global deal to end plastic pollution. But not everyone is on board.

The 4th Session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to Develop an International Legally Binding Instrument on Plastic Pollution, Including in the Marine Environment (INC‑4) was held in Ottawa in late April.

IN-4 aimed to make progress on the development of a legally binding global agreement to end plastic pollution by 2040. As the host country, Canada played a pivotal role in the progress made during this session, setting the stage for international cooperation at the final negotiating session (INC-5).

Most negotiating teams appear to think it is unlikely that any kind of meaningful conclusion will be reached at that meeting.

United Nations negotiations have a reputation for pulling rabbits out of hats but these talks look set to need a truly remarkable rabbit or a wonderfully magic hat. Maybe an extension of the talks will do the trick, maybe there is a solution to the problem of plastic pollution that has not yet been put on the table, or maybe the United Nations will find a way to redefine the terms of reference of what has become known colloquially as the “plastics treaty,” but it was almost impossible to find delegates or experts in Ottawa at the end of INC-4 who expressed confidence that INC-5 would reach a successful conclusion. Steven Guilbeault, Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change,  and Luis Vayas Valdivieso, Chair of the INC and Ambassador of Ecuador to the United Kingdom, are among the very few notable exceptions.

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Minister Guilbeault announced a number of domestic initiatives, including the creation of the Federal Plastics Registry, a new tool to compel plastic producers and other companies across the plastics value chain to help monitor and track plastic from the time it is produced up to its end of life.

In addition to these important domestic announcements, Minister Guilbeault also announced that Canada would be providing $10 million in funding for the Global Plastic Action Partnership to support the ongoing development of partnerships in developing countries to tackle plastic pollution, as well as $5 million for the Global Program for the Blue Economy (PROBLUE) to reduce marine plastic pollution, preserve marine biodiversity, promote sustainable economic development, and foster gender equality in coastal economies.

The INC-4 talks identified more than 35 areas of disagreement about different sections of the “treaty” – far more than areas of agreement. In fact the only area of agreement, often grudgingly, seems to be that the world needs a treaty to control plastic pollution. Solutions discussed range from banning as many plastic products as possible to maximizing recovery and recycling activities while not placing a cap on the production of plastics.

Among the multitude of areas of disagreement were the following:

  • Lifecycle Limitations – some delegates wished the objective of the treaty to be limited to the lifecycle management of plastic waste while others wished it to cover the full lifecycle of plastic.
  • Banned Substances – some wished to differentiate between substances in plastics that should be banned and those that should be reduced. Others wished the treaty to cover all plastic materials. It should be noted that the negotiators have not yet reached final agreement on what constitutes a plastic for the purpose of the treaty.
  • Avoidable Products – some want problematic and avoidable plastic products to be identified globally while others prefer that each nation have the right to adopt its own list of problematic and avoidable plastic products.
  • Microplastics Versus Nanoplastics – One group of nations wished the treaty to address microplastics while others wished that it include measures to control nanoplastics. Nanoplastics are the smallest size of plastic particle and have potentially the more serious environmental and health effects.
  • Non-Plastic Substitutes – Another group wished that the treaty process support non-plastic substitutes while others did not wish to see this aspect addressed in the treaty.
  • Extended Producer Responsibility – Some called for a global Extended Producer Responsibility scheme while others did not wish to have EPR mentioned in the treaty.
  • Waste Management Targets – Others wanted global plastic waste management targets while others supported nationally determined plastic waste management targets. (Except for jurisdictions with operating EPR schemes the quantities of plastic waste being discharged each year to the environment are largely a matter of guesswork.)
  • WTO Rules – Certain countries expressed concern that other nations would use this treaty to subvert World Trade Organization rules for orderly regulation of trade. This might include such measures as banning trade in certain plastic products in order to give their own industries a competitive advantage.
  • Financial Provisions – Aspects of financing, both for operation of the treaty and its provisions, and for remediation of historical plastic pollution, attracted much discussion, just as they have in climate change negotiations.
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If this treaty reaches a successful conclusion it will certainly have a major impact on the world of plastics. If not, the world’s plastic waste seems likely to continue to have a major impact on the global environment.

Following the lead of many negotiators and concerned organizations, we are using the word “treaty” rather loosely. The correct term for this proposed treaty is ILBI, standing for International Legally Binding Instrument. There are as yet no ILBIs in the United Nations Treaty Collection and resistance from some countries to legally binding international laws of any kind is very high.

A comprehensive summary of the conclusions of INC-4, prepared by the Earth Negotiations team of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, can be found here.

The fifth and final session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution (INC-5) will take place in Busan, Republic of Korea, from November 25 to December 1, 2024.

Colin Isaacs is a chemist with practical experience in administration, municipal council, the Ontario Legislature, a major environmental group, and, for the past three decades, as an adviser to business and government. He is one of the pioneers in promoting the concept of sustainable development for business in Canada and has written extensively on the topic in the popular press and for environment and business platforms.

Featured image credit: Getty Images

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