Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Plastic treaty talks conclude in Ottawa with little progress

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Activist Dianne Peterson places a sign on an art installation outside a United Nations conference on plastics, April 23, 2024, in Ottawa, Ontario. File photo
| Photo Credit: AP

Activist and environmentalist groups have termed the Global Plastics Treaty negotiations that concluded in Ottawa, Canada, on Tuesday as “disappointing”. Nearly 192 member countries deliberated for nearly a week to iron out a legally binding agreement to “end plastic pollution”. This was the fourth round of talks since countries resolved in 2022 to eliminate plastics and formed an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC), which consisted of government representatives tasked with drawing up a timeline for countries to not only eliminate plastic use but also halt production.

However the close connection between plastics and the oil economies of prominent countries, the vast manufacturing businesses that revolve around making and supplying different grades of plastics, the near ubiquity of the polymer’s use in a variety of applications and the paucity of affordable, equivalent alternatives constitute the biggest roadblocks to its elimination. Because plastics do not easily degrade organically, they pollute marine and terrestrial ecosystems and have been long characterised as among the toughest environmental contaminants.

Explained | What is the global treaty on plastic pollution?

“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?” said Jacob Kean-Hammerson, Environmental Investigation Agency, United Kingdom, who was present at the talks.

The fourth round of talks was expected to deliver a timeline whereby primary plastic production was to halt. This didn’t happen, though countries agreed to move forward with and come up with more detailed assessments of emissions, production, product design, waste management, problematic and avoidable plastics, financing, and a just transition.

“We came to Ottawa to advance the text and with the hope that members would agree on the inter-sessional work required to make even greater progress ahead of INC-5. We leave Ottawa having achieved both goals and a clear path to landing an ambitious deal in Busan ahead of us,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). “The work, however, is far from over. The plastic pollution crisis continues to engulf the world and we have just a few months left before the end of year deadline agreed upon in 2022,” she noted.

What do countries and companies want in global plastic treaty talks? | Explained

Inter-sessional work is expert meetings that take place between the official INC sessions and expected to catalyse agreement on key issues. The next meeting, expected to be the final one , is scheduled for November 2024 in Busan, South Korea.

“India opposed restrictions on producing so called primary plastic polymers or virgin plastics, arguing that production reductions exceed the scope of UNEA [United Nations Environment Assembly] resolutions. While acknowledging the chemicals used in plastic manufacturing, India highlighted that some are already subject to prohibition or regulation under different conventions. The Indian delegates urged that decisions regarding chemicals be grounded in a transparent and inclusive process informed by scientific evidence,” said an analysis by Siddharth Ghanshyam Singh, of the Centre for Science and Environment, who was present at the talks.

In 2022, India brought into effect the Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules (2021) that banned 19 categories of “single-use” plastics. These are defined as disposable goods that are made with plastic but are generally use-and-throw after a single use and include, plastic cups, spoons, earbuds, decorative thermocol, wrapping or packaging film that is used to cover sweet-boxes and cigarette packs and plastic cutlery. It however doesn’t include plastic bottles — even those less than 200 ml — and multi-layered packaging boxes (like in milk cartons). Moreover, even the ban on single-use plastic items is not uniformly enforced nationally, with several outlets continuing to retail these goods.

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