Healthy Oceans. Healthy Communities.

Plastics Treaty

April 30, 2024

The United Nations is working on a legally binding plastics treaty and the fourth negotiating session is set to take place in Ottawa April 23-29, 2024. The objective is ambitious: “to end plastic pollution across the full life cycle of all plastics and address its effects on human health and the environment, including the marine environment.” The draft text is so riddled with square-bracketed options that it’s difficult to make out progress toward that objective.

One thing that is notably absent from the draft text is a commitment to reducing the production of plastics. That could be explained by the fact that (according to Greenpeace) chemical and plastics industry lobbyists at the negotiating meetings outnumber the delegates from 70 countries. The Centre for
International Environmental Law reports “Global plastic polymer production doubled from 2000 to 2019 and is anticipated to almost triple from 2019 levels by 2050.” Unsurprisingly, global plastic pollution is expected to triple by 2060.

The draft Treaty does contain optional language that would limit the uses of plastic: “Limitations should be put on unnecessary and problematic plastic applications, to make recycling techniques more efficient and environmentally sound, and biodegradable plastics to become a suitable alternative for single use applications of ordinary plastics.” We’d like to nominate the person who gets to decide what’s “unnecessary and problematic”—we’ve certainly handled enough of it to know.

The focus on recycling is troubling, as we know facilities aren’t always available or suitable for biodegrading plastic substitutes. Industry likes to behave as if the irresponsible consumer is the source of plastic pollution; consumers like to blame governments for failing to provide adequate recycling facilities; and the plain fact is that there are really limited uses for recycled plastics even if they are collected.

This is a situation that is ripe for a ban on particular applications and an extended producer responsibility scheme that will work to reduce the proliferation of plastic in our lives. 

First on our list to ban: expanded polystyrene foam, or Styrofoam as most people call it. No more marine applications, period; and in packaging applications, it should be restricted to products that can’t be safely shipped by another means.