Global Plastics Treaty negotiating countries fail to respond to the magnitude of the crisis

The fourth round of talks for a Global Plastics Treaty has wrapped up in Canada with a hugely disappointing decision to exclude discussions on the production of primary plastic polymers – a key root source of plastic pollution.

The fourth meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-4) for a global agreement to end plastic pollution concluded after a plenary full of huddles, leaving the most contentious item to the very end of the session.

Countries decided to move forward with intersessional work on the financial mechanism, as well as on plastic products, chemicals of concern in plastic products, product design, reusability and recyclability.

Protestors outside the INC-4 talks in Ottawa, Canada (c) EIA


Member States agreed to include observers’ participation during this work. Additionally, they decided to create a legal drafting group that will conduct a legal review of the text and provide recommendations to the plenary.

However, the decision to exclude upstream measures from the intersessional work means it will be more daunting to include extraction or production reduction measures under the ambit of the draft plastics treaty.

This compromise diminishes the ambition of this process as it ignores the central role of plastics production in fueling the climate, biodiversity and pollution crises. This is not only an utter disappointment, but also a missed opportunity to tackle the root causes comprehensively.

EIA Ocean Campaigner Jacob Kean-Hammerson, who is at the talks, said: “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?

“While it is important to discuss the financial aspects, how can we discuss means of implementation without knowing what we are implementing?

“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.”

The seven days spent in Ottawa in negotiations revealed which countries are the champions for an ambitious plastics treaty that addresses the full lifecycle of plastics from extraction to disposal and which are the spoilers bending to the interests of the plastics and fossil fuel industries.

Perú and Rwanda stood out as champions for presenting a proposal for intersessional work on primary plastic polymers with aims to reduce 40 per cent of the global use of primary plastics polymers by 2040 from 2025 levels, which a number of delegations strongly supported, including Malawi, the Philippines and Fiji.

In addition to the Rwanda/Perú proposal, several countries launched the Bridge to Busan Declaration on Plastic Polymers to rally parties in support of keeping the provision for addressing primary plastic polymers alive in the treaty text and building momentum for the fifth and final round of negotiations in Busan, Republic of Korea later this year.

On the other side of the spectrum, the ‘spoilers’ are a small group of polymer-and-plastics-producing countries, including Saudi Arabia, India, Kuwait and Qatar, which tried to reopen and sow doubts over the scope of the draft treaty to redefine what the full lifecycle of plastic means in an apparent bid to restrict the coverage of the proposed treaty to waste management matters only.

Although there was progress on substantial negotiations in Ottawa, countries are walking away with a text that is not yet fit for final negotiations in Busan. While there has been some streamlining of the draft, there have also been more additions than deletions, leading to a text riddled with a large number of options and bracketed words and sentences (i.e language not yet agreed upon).

A small number of countries continued their obstructionist and low-ambition tactics – watering down, adding countless brackets and shamelessly twisting the language across the different provisions in an attempt to narrow the scope and lower the ambitions of the treaty.

EIA Ocean Campaign Leader Chris Dixon at the talks (c) EIA

Parties have been operating under provisionally applied rules of procedure that allow for voting on decisions if all efforts to reach a consensus have been exhausted. However, under pressure from countries seeking to obstruct progress which insist there can be no voting, countries have been operating under a de facto consensus-based decision-making process, limiting ambition even on decisions related to intersessional work.

The low-ambition efforts are not surprising, given the extent to which fossil fuel interests have been increasing their presence at the negotiations.

Early in the week, a Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) analysis of the UNEP list of INC-4 participants revealed that 196 lobbyists for the fossil fuel and chemical industry registered – which is seven times greater than the Scientists’ Coalition for An Effective Plastic Treaty and seven times greater than the Indigenous Peoples Caucus – representing a 37 per cent increase compared to INC-3 held just six months ago.

As countries continue on the path to INC-5, it is imperative that they act on the demands of indigenous peoples as rightsholders entitled to a healthy environment. Indigenous peoples, together with allies in fenceline and frontline communities around the world, have been explicit in their demands for protection from the harms of fossil fuel extraction and of false solutions such as incineration and chemical recycling – which is a requirement for defending their right to a healthy environment – as well as in their call for real circular solutions such as non-toxic reuse systems and other indigenous practices.

Plastic proliferation and pollution are multifaceted and global issues. All of us rely on countries to continue pursuing legally binding measures within international law to ensure we agree on a treaty by the end of the year that addresses the full lifecycle of plastics from extraction to disposal.

The INC-5 talks are due to be held in Busan, Republic of Korea, from 25 November to 1 December 2024.