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INC-4 Provides Limited Progress Towards a Global Plastics Treaty

The 4th Session of the United Nations Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-4) to develop an international instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment, concluded on April 29, 2024. While some work was accomplished, the session’s talks ignored calls to reduce plastic production, a move that numerous NGOs call a huge misstep.

Developments from INC-4

In March 2022, the United Nations Environment Assembly adopted Resolution 5/14, agreeing to adopt a legally binding global plastics treaty by the end of 2024. Since then, four Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) sessions have been held, with the most recent – INC-4 in Ottawa, Canada – ending on April 29, 2024.

INC-4 saw the completion of some work, including developing a list of products and chemicals of concern, and standard design requirements to improve recycling capabilities. However, despite calls by several nations, talks did not address the need to reduce production of primary plastic polymers (new plastics). This was likely due to the influence of nearly 200 fossil fuel lobbyists present at the talks, a 37% increase from INC-3.

“The INC has once again failed to ask the most fundamental question to the success of the future treaty: how do we tackle the unsustainable production of plastics?” said Jacob Kean-Hammerson, ocean campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency.

“If we continue to ignore the calls of progressive countries and allow blocker countries to hold the talks hostage, we will fail to reach our shared ambition of ending plastic pollution.”

Plastic Crisis

400 million tonnes of new plastic are produced annually. More than 8 million tonnes end up in the oceans each year, resulting in an estimated 100,000 deaths of marine life.

Additionally, plastics are impacting human health, through ingestion of microplastic-contaminated water and food, leading to endocrine disruption, insulin resistance, and in some cases even cancer. A 2023 study revealed that a staggering 171 trillion plastic particles – equivalent to about 2.3 million tonnes – were floating in the ocean by 2019

Despite increasing efforts globally, only 9% of plastics are recycled. This is due to complexities in recycling plastic products created from numerous types of polymers and lack of proper infrastructure. Almost all new plastic is manufactured through the burning of fossil fuels, contributing to 3.4% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, almost as much as the entire aviation industry’s emissions. Plastic production is projected to more than double by 2050, increasing its GHG emissions and contributing even more to global climate change.

Plastic waste dumped near a river in Pakistan

Plastic waste dumped near a river in Pakistan. Photo: GRID-Arendal/Flickr.

What’s Next for the Global Plastic Treaty Talks?

On the final day of INC-4, 28 nations – including Australia, Austria, Nigeria, and the Philippines – launched the Bridge to Busan: Declaration on Primary Plastic Polymers, a declaration reaffirming that a global treaty truly focused on plastic pollution must address production. Intersessional work is planned before INC-5 in Busan, Korea in November. However, the text of the treaty draft cannot be edited, leaving many doubting that negotiations will end with a signable treaty by the end of the year following the discouraging outcome of INC-4.

“The world is burning, and member states are wasting time and opportunity. We saw some progress… However, compromises were made on the outcome which disregarded plastic production cuts, further distancing us from reaching a treaty that science requires, and justice demands,” said Graham Forbes, Greenpeace Head of Delegation to the Global Plastics Treaty negotiations and Global Plastics Campaign Lead at Greenpeace USA.

Another aspect that is seemingly missing from talks on a global plastics treaty is the discussion on holding polluting companies accountable for existing waste. Studies of branded plastic pollution have shown that only 60 companies are responsible for over half of the world’s plastic pollution. In addition to requiring companies to cut down on plastic production, it may be just as important to require polluting companies to finance clean-up operations of the waste they created.

Featured image: Ministry of Environment – Rwanda/Flickr

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