Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Delegates in Ottawa making strides toward global plastics treaty, Environment Minister says

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A person carries food in a plastic bag past a plastic public art installation outside the a United Nations conference on plastics on April 23 in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Delegates gathered in Ottawa for a key negotiating session are making strides toward a global plastics treaty, says federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault.

The treaty – which participating countries have agreed to craft by the end of this year – is considered key to manage a substance that has become essential in sectors including health care, transport and energy but is piling up in quantities that pose risks to the world’s oceans, biodiversity and human health.

While still under discussion, the treaty could include provisions for what kind of plastics would be controlled, how control measures would be implemented and paid for, and timelines for restricting or banning certain substances.

Plastic production has risen exponentially in the past few decades and now amounts to some 400 million tonnes a year, with that total projected to double by 2040 if systems don’t change, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. That plastic tide has resulted in waste-management problems – less than 10 per cent of plastic generated globally gets recycled, according to UN estimates – which are especially acute in developing countries that lack comprehensive waste-management systems.

Monday is the final scheduled day of the fourth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution, or INC-4, which began April 23. The committee, part of the UN Environment Programme, was formed in 2022 with the goal of developing an international, legally binding treaty on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment, by the end of 2024. The fifth and final INC negotiating session is scheduled for South Korea in November.

“INC-4 is a really crucial meeting, because if we have any hope of having what we agreed upon two years ago – to have a legally binding treaty to end plastic pollution by the end of this year – there’s a lot of work for us to accomplish here in Ottawa,” Mr. Guilbeault said Friday in an interview.

He said he hoped the session would wind up with parties agreeing on about 70 per cent of the text in the treaty. An existing draft agreement, called a zero draft, runs to nearly 70 pages and includes many sections of bracketed text, indicating issues on which member countries have not yet agreed.

The draft text expanded significantly after INC-3, held in November, 2023, in Nairobi, Kenya. At those talks, a minority group of member states – including Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia – pushed for language that weakened the draft, according to Gaia, a non-profit environmental group. Those changes included pushing for voluntary measures over legally binding ones and a focus on waste management instead of production cuts, the group said.

Mr. Guilbeault conceded the draft had expanded, but said that process was necessary to work toward a consensus and in line with how other international pacts have taken shape, including a landmark 2022 biodiversity agreement reached in Montreal.

“I think that before countries are willing to make some compromise and negotiate on their position, they need to feel that they’re being heard – and the way to do that is for their perspective, their proposals, their point of view to be reflected in the text,” he said.

Environmental groups have been pushing for production caps, but Mr. Guilbeault said there could be other measures – such as phasing out harmful chemicals, restricting single-use plastics and requiring more recycled content – that could be more effective in reducing pollution, at least in the short term.

Talks at INC-4 have also focused on getting a better handle on how much plastic is produced and where it winds up. Ottawa on April 22 announced plans for a federal plastics registry that would require companies to report how much plastic they produce and import, and how it moves through the market.

Alice (Xia) Zhu, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, was at a conference side event, where she talked to delegates about the need for better plastics tracking systems.

Working with researchers at U of T and the Rochester Institute of Technology, Ms. Zhu has developed a way to measure plastic emissions – referring to how much plastic ends up in the waste stream, not airborne emissions – using Toronto as a case study.

In a study published this past February in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, Ms. Zhu and her co-authors estimated Toronto’s plastic emissions – from sources including tire dust, microplastics from playing fields and loads of laundry, and litter – at nearly 4,000 tonnes in 2020.

She hopes the study could become a template for tracking plastic emissions, akin to reporting systems in place for greenhouse-gas emissions.

“Without quantitative targets, you’re not able to track your progress toward a common goal that the world is working toward,” Ms. Zhu said.

Mr. Guilbeault also said he hoped INC-4 would result in countries agreeing to intersessional talks – interim sessions that would allow governments to continue discussions before the final meeting in November.

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