Negotiators from around the world are descending on Ottawa for an intense round of talks aimed at eliminating plastic pollution by 2040. But after the previous meeting came off the rails at the last moment, countries are far from reaching an agreement.

It’s been just over two years since the world’s countries agreed to negotiate a legally binding treaty to end plastic pollution. Countries are trying to complete the treaty by the end of this year. This week’s negotiations in Canada is the fourth of five meetings, and Ottawa now finds itself at the centre of these discussions, wielding influence over what will be agreed.

Plastics are everywhere. According to the United Nations, approximately 20 million tonnes of plastic waste is dumped into lakes, rivers and oceans each year. Plastic production is responsible for billions of tonnes of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. And, as more plastics are produced and consumed, microplastics and hazardous chemicals are building up in the environment and affecting human health.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch — a swirling collection of plastic debris three times the size of France, according to the Ocean Cleanup — is one major example. But because plastic isn’t biodegradable, it doesn't disappear; it just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. Microplastics are now found in the food we eat, the water we drink and in the air we breathe. They’re found in the snow in the Arctic, the sand in remote deserts, and deep in the ocean. Scientists have even discovered plastic particles in breast milk and in fetuses.

This week in Ottawa alone, 2.8 tonnes worth of plastic is expected to fall on the city, according to the Minderoo Foundation — an Australia-based charity.

Screenshot from the Minderoo Foundation's plastic forecast on April 22, 2024.

“We're starting to drown in plastics. We see it everywhere and the production levels go up every year,” said Karen Wirsig, senior plastics program manager at Environmental Defence. “So the longer we take to deal with this question — with this global plastic pollution crisis — the more plastics will be building up.”

The last round of discussions in November in Kenya failed to deliver on a number of key goals. There was no first draft of an agreement or plans to keep talking between meetings. That means countries are heading into this week with what’s called a “Zero Draft” — essentially a long-winded text of placeholder options. The goal is to whittle it down to something usable.

If countries are going to meet their goal of agreeing to a global plastics treaty by the end of this year, tremendous progress will need to be achieved this week before Canada hands off duties to South Korea, which will host the fifth and final round of negotiations later this year.

Negotiators from around the world are descending on Ottawa for an intense round of talks aimed at eliminating plastic pollution by 2040. But after a previous meeting came off the rails at the last moment, countries are far from reaching an agreement.

“I'm hoping we can hand South Korea a text that is about 70 per cent agreed. Could be a bit more, could be a bit less, but a text that's been largely agreed upon,” Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault told Canada’s National Observer in an interview ahead of the meetings.

Guilbeault has in recent years built a reputation in international climate and environmental diplomacy as a person who can overcome stalemates. He was instrumental two years ago in helping launch a loss and damage fund at the United Nations climate negotiations, and hosted countries in Montreal to help land a major nature protection pact. Now his attention is turned to ending plastic pollution.

“We've agreed on what we want to do and now we have to try to agree on what we're doing, and [that’s] often where the rubber hits the road,” he said. “Despite important international tensions, on these environmental issues, we've been able to set our differences aside and find common ground, so I'm optimistic that we can do that in Ottawa.”

The world is “on the cusp of securing a just and ambitious treaty,” said Inger Andersen, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Program. But for the treaty to be ambitious, it needs to have several elements, she said. It must:

  • Have clear targets with timelines.
  • Recognize that single-use and short-lived plastics must be eliminated.
  • Recognize existing products should be redesigned to curb plastic production.
  • Involve plastic producers taking greater responsibility for their environmental impact.
  • Strengthen recycling.
  • Address harmful chemicals.
  • Require countries to transparently report on progress.
  • Include agreements on how to finance the reduction of plastic waste.
  • Include a just transition for waste pickers and affected communities.
  • Tackle “legacy” waste — referring to the plastic waste already in existence that will keep washing up on shores long after plastic production is severely reduced.

“These are the elements that I want to see movement on in these coming days,” she said. “This is what we need to stay focused on so we can deliver what we promised.”

Greenpeace and other environmental groups in the “Break Free from Plastic Movement” are calling for countries to adopt a legally binding target to slash plastic production 75 per cent by 2040, and eliminate plastic pollution altogether. The groups are also calling for a ban on single-use plastics, ensuring a just transition, and rooting the treaty in human rights to help reduce inequality and promote human health.

It remains to be seen what exactly countries will agree to but overall, the purpose of the Ottawa negotiations will be for countries to identify “landing zones” for the eventual treaty.

Plastic statue outside the Shaw Centre in Ottawa, where the negotiations are happening. Photo by John Woodside/Canada's National Observer

“In my experience, with such complex processes, you should start to build the consensus in the areas we are closest to each other, and then gradually create the trust and momentum to tackle the most difficult issues,” European Commission executive vice-president Maroš Šefčovič told Canada’s National Observer.

Šefčovič said he expects agreement can be more easily found on issues of recycling, eliminating single-use plastics, and toughening responsibilities for plastic producers to mitigate their environmental impact. One of the more difficult discussions to be had is about the link between increased plastic production and increased plastic pollution.

“I think this will be the most difficult nut to crack,” he said. The best way to tackle the plastic pollution problem is by curbing production, he added. It won’t be enough to recycle plastic waste if more and more plastic is produced each year.

Potentially capping plastic production is intensely political, and likely to face pushback this week. Major oil and gas producing countries like China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United States and others want to keep selling plastics to the world. In the last meeting, they were the countries that added less ambitious text to the draft to be negotiated, Wirsig said.

“We need to get beyond the foot-dragging and, frankly, delay tactics posed by a small number of countries who clearly are not interested in having a treaty to eliminate plastic pollution,” she said. Wirsig said oil and gas companies are looking at the plastics industry as a key source of new revenue as the demand for fossil fuels drops when transportation and home heating transition to electricity.

Paris versus Montreal

Crafting a treaty that can eliminate plastic pollution in just over 15 years will be a monumental challenge, but templates exist. The Paris Agreement, signed in 2015 to address global warming, is one potential option, but close climate and environmental diplomacy watchers warn the landmark treaty has significant flaws that should be avoided.

The Paris Agreement got sign-on from all countries on the need to limit global warming, but it lacked teeth. There is no enforcement mechanism, meaning emission reductions remain voluntary.

“We see what happens with the Paris accords … people say a few nice things, people say a few bad things and the Earth keeps getting warmer,” Wirsig said. “If we do that with plastics, we'll have the same result.”

To build a treaty that will slash plastic production will mean looking at the Montreal Protocol for inspiration, Wirsig said.

Agreed to in 1987, the Montreal Protocol is an agreement that regulates the production and use of nearly 100 chemicals that harm the ozone layer. The treaty includes a list of chemicals that have been phased out, and because of the treaty, the ozone layer is on track to recover within decades.

Rather than getting all countries to agree to a goal, like the Paris Agreement, the Montreal Protocol started with strong measures that a smaller number of countries could agree to, Wirsig explained.

“What you get from those two different starting points is the result we see,” she said.

In other words, “start with ambition, stick with ambition, get the right measures in place and over time, the laggards will follow,” Wirsig said.

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