As world leaders attempt to negotiate a global plan to tackle plastic pollution, the industries whose bottom lines depend on the continued use and production of plastic are in Ottawa to advocate against production caps.

When delegates disembarked at Ottawa’s airport, they were greeted with industry-sponsored banners and at the Westin Hotel Ottawa, where many delegates are staying, ads plastered the third floor with slogans like “These plastics save lives” and “These plastics deliver water.”

An anonymous ad campaign plastered signs that read "These plastics deliver water," "These plastics save lives" and "These plastics reduce food waste" in the Westin Hotel Ottawa. Some people wore billboards of these ads outside the Shaw Centre, where the negotiations are taking place. Photo by Natasha Bulowski

At the hotel, the Alliance to End Plastic Waste — a prominent industry group — had a big installation promoting a circular economy for plastics to show member state delegates.

The plastics industry’s sales pitch is centred on the progressive-sounding idea of a circular economy, where plastics never become waste, instead they are recycled, composted or reused. Rob Ralston, an associate professor of political science at the University of Edinburgh, says the plastics and consumer goods industry won a “key battle” in the public relations game by making the term ubiquitous.

A U.K.-based charity called the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and “industry put a huge amount of effort and resources into trying to promote this idea to the point that it's now almost like an accepted term,” Ralston told Canada’s National Observer at the negotiations. He is currently studying the UN Plastics Pollution Treaty and corporate power. People are quite skeptical of the ability of recycling to address plastic pollution, but consumer goods companies’ pitch of a circular economy is mostly recycling — reframed, said Ralston.

Globally, only nine per cent of plastic is successfully recycled, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) 2019 statistics.

Although recycling is part of the solution, “we won't recycle our way out of plastic pollution. That's very clear to me,” federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault told Canada’s National Observer in an interview.

“Why do we expect corporate actors whose business models conflict with the objectives of the treaty to act in a way that aligns with environmental and health objectives?” said Ralston.

The plastics industry’s sales pitch is centred on the progressive-sounding idea of a circular economy, but for consumer goods companies, this is still largely focused on recycling. #GlobalPlasticsTreaty

The Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL) identified 196 participants at the UN talks from fossil fuels and petrochemical-affiliated groups, a 37 per cent increase over the numbers at the last round of negotiations in Nairobi. However, CIEL’s analysis did not attempt to count the large contingent of consumer goods companies, multinational food and beverage companies — like McDonald’s or Pepsi, for example — or any of their associated industry groups.

CIEL and other environmental groups argue the presence of lobbyists from industries responsible for generating the plastics crisis obstructs progress.

Plastics industry representatives are here “as a good faith actor with motivations to contribute to environmental solutions” and provide member states with information, said Betsy Bowers, executive director of the EPS Industry Alliance, in an interview with Canada’s National Observer.

“We’re a legitimate stakeholder and we should be given the same respect and consideration as any stakeholder that's taking the time and energy to come to the table and contribute to the solution,” said Bowers. The alliance represents the expanded polystyrene industry.

A production cap or a ban on plastic packaging could “crush” some companies’ business models, even for a diverse business where only a third of their portfolio is plastic packaging, said Bowers.

Kenneth Faulkner, director of government relations at Calgary-headquartered Nova Chemicals, attended with four other members of the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada, a lobby group representing the majority of Canada’s plastics and chemistry industry.

More than 99 per cent of plastic is made from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency projected plastic production will drive about half of the oil and gas industry growth between 2018 and 2050.

Civil society groups rallied across the road from the Shaw Centre in Ottawa, where negotiations on a global plastics treaty are taking place. Photo © Tim Aubry / Greenpeace

“The pollution starts right when you extract oil and gas from the ground, when you refine it… The toxic substances that are coming into the air and water from those two processes of extraction and refining are killing front-line communities, where cancer rates are skyrocketing,” said Karen Wirsig, senior program manager for plastics at Environmental Defence. “Then, when we're using plastics, even before we throw them away, they're leaching toxic chemical additives and microplastics into our food and into our water.”

Canada is part of the High Ambition Coalition — a group of countries aiming to eliminate plastic pollution worldwide by 2040 — and put a domestic ban on single-use plastics in 2021. The petrochemical industry successfully fought the ban in Federal Court, but the federal government is appealing the ruling.

Guilbeault told Canada’s National Observer he believes that due to the abundant studies into plastic’s health and environmental effects, the federal government will be able to successfully appeal the ruling. But Guilbeault stresses banning single-use plastics is just one tool and he doesn’t think it will be possible to “ban our way out of plastic pollution.”

Guilbeault said he hasn’t had much engagement with the oil and gas and petrochemical industries in the lead-up to the negotiations.

“The fact that some of them are suing us is not very conducive to having open conversations about these things,” he said.

The coalition of plastic companies that sued the federal government include Dow Chemical, Imperial Oil, and Nova Chemicals. Alberta also intervened in the case.

But the fact that certain lobbies and jurisdictions oppose federal measures on climate, nature and plastics shouldn’t deter us from continuing to act, said Guilbeault.

Despite leadership on the global stage and the single-use plastics ban, Wirsig noted that federal and provincial governments continue to subsidize the petrochemical industry to produce plastics.

Dow could receive up to $2.2 billion in tax credits — up to $400 million from federal investment tax credits for carbon capture and hydrogen projects — from federal and provincial governments to produce polyethylene, a primary plastic for single-use products.

Subsidizing plastic production “makes plastic artificially cheap” on the market, which helps large companies like Coke, Pepsi, Mars and Unilever, said Wirsig.

Plastics also cause planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions throughout their life cycle, particularly during production. Plastics generated 3.4 per cent — 1.8 billion tonnes — of global emissions in 2019, according to the OECD and 90 per cent of that came from the production of plastic and conversion from fossil fuels.

At the plastics treaty negotiations and side events, people from communities affected by plastic pollution spoke about its impact on their lives, environment and health.

“I think that on the chemical side of things, for one, pragmatically, accidents are going to happen in any industry. So right now, bringing that out in terms of the plastics treaty is, I think, normal,” said Bowers, when asked to respond to Aamjiwnaang First Nation shining a spotlight on a dangerous benzene leak and other long-term pollution from chemical plants plaguing the First Nation.

— With files from John Woodside

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Time for plastics to put into practice what they claim can be done.
Let'em have as much produced as they successfully recycle.

(And biodegradable plastics can be made from products other than oil: maybe they could be required to produce biodegradables only by, say, 2035, with a requirement to set their own targets, resulting in a requirement to reduce the petro-based kind to the level targetted, regardless of whether or not they move ahead with biodegradables.

I find it interesting that our politicians can make demands on citizens, but seem powerless to do so with corporations.