Problem of plastic pollution far from solved as Ottawa talks wrap up

Activist Dianne Peterson places a sign on a public art installation outside the conference on plastics in Ottawa, which wrapped up Tuesday in the early morning hours. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Activist Dianne Peterson places a sign on a public art installation outside the conference on plastics in Ottawa, which wrapped up Tuesday in the early morning hours. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Negotiators from around the world wrapped up talks in Ottawa early this morning, far from a deal that would address the global scourge of plastic pollution.

There is still plenty to be worked out before a meaningful treaty can be reached at a fifth and final round of meetings scheduled for later this year in South Korea.

The Ottawa meeting ended with a commitment to focus on reducing the harmful chemicals produced by plastic and making plastic products easier to recycle.

There was, however, disagreement over whether to work on a binding commitment to limit plastic production.

Here's a closer look at what the summit aimed to address, what came out of the Ottawa summit and what's next.

What's at stake

The plastic negotiations aim to address the enormous amount of plastic being produced, the harm it does to the natural world and human health and how plastic can better be recycled.

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The production of plastic, which is made primarily from fossil fuels and chemicals, has doubled in the past two decades, from 200 million tonnes in 2000 to 400 million tonnes in 2019.

Every day, the equivalent of 2,000 garbage trucks full of plastic are dumped into the world's oceans, rivers and lakes, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

According to UNEP, plastic pollution can alter habitats and the natural world, reducing ecosystems' ability to adapt to climate change, directly affecting millions of people's livelihoods and food production capabilities.

Only about nine per cent of plastic is recycled.

What was agreed upon

One of the main takeaways from the meeting was that nations agreed to keep working on details ahead of the meeting in South Korea. This is known as "intersessional work."

After the previous round of talks, they had not even agreed to that step.

Among the issues on the table is limiting harmful and avoidable plastic products and chemicals, designing products to make them easier to recycle and coming up with a plan to finance the final agreement.

Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press
Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press

Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, sounded a note of optimism as the Ottawa meetings ended, saying in a statement there is "a clear path to landing an ambitious deal."

She added: "The work, however, is far from over. The plastic pollution crisis continues to engulf the world."

What's missing

Lisa Gue, national policy manager at the David Suzuki Foundation, said objections from several oil and plastic producing states scuttled a proposal for intersessional discussions on limiting plastic production.

Without such a limit, Gue said in an interview it's difficult to see how the final agreement could be considered a success. She said there's still a chance to include a cap if "the many voices working on production limits take those efforts forward."

Rwanda's representative said negotiators ignored the elephant in the room by not addressing plastic production.

Industry groups advocate for a treaty that focuses on recycling plastic and reuse, sometimes referred to as "circularity," rather than limiting production.

The Chemistry Industry Association of Canada, which represents plastic manufacturers, said it was pleased with progress made.

Isabelle Des Chênes, an association vice-president, said in a statement the group supports a treaty that "ends plastic pollution while retaining the essential benefits of plastics to foster a more sustainable and lower carbon future."

What's next

The Ottawa negotiations were the second-to-last meeting before 176 countries are expected to finalize a treaty to tackle plastic waste by addressing plastics throughout their lifecycle, from production to use and disposal.

A fifth and final meeting of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for Plastics is set for Busan, South Korea, from Nov. 25 to Dec. 1.