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Limiting plastic production remains controversial as Ottawa hosts treaty talks

OTTAWA – Negotiators from 176 countries are meeting in downtown Ottawa this week for the fourth round of talks to forge a global treaty to eliminate plastic waste in less than 20 years.

OTTAWA – Negotiators from 176 countries are meeting in downtown Ottawa this week for the fourth round of talks to forge a global treaty to eliminate plastic waste in less than 20 years.

Ottawa is hosting the fourth of five rounds of negotiations, with the aim of finalizing a deal by the end of the year.

The proliferation of plastics has been tremendous as it is a material of choice, largely due to its affordability and longevity. But that also means it never goes away, and its impact on nature and growing concerns about human health are fueling efforts to ban plastic waste and eliminate the most problematic chemicals used to make it.

Canada’s Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault played a crucial role in kick-starting discussions on the 2022 plastics treaty when he helped introduce a resolution at the United Nations Environment Assembly in Kenya. He remains convinced that a strong treaty is needed.

“We want to take steps as quickly as possible to eliminate plastic pollution,” he said in an interview with The Canadian Press. “I mean, the collective goal that we’ve set for ourselves is to do this by 2040, but I think from both an environmental and health perspective, the sooner the better.”

But Guilbeault is still hesitant to take a definitive position on the elephant in the negotiating room: a cap on plastic production.

“We want an ambitious treaty,” he said.

“I don’t think this is the time to start… getting into certain things and saying, ‘Okay, this is it.’ Let’s have the conversation and see where we end up.”

For many environmental and health organizations observing the conversations, the only way to solve the plastic crisis is to reduce the amount produced.

But that’s a no-go zone for the chemical and plastics manufacturing industries, whose members argue that alternatives to plastic are often more expensive, energy-intensive and heavier.

Karen Wirsig, senior program manager for plastics at advocacy group Environmental Defense, said plastic production will double by 2050 if left unchecked. Plastic waste could triple by 2060, she added.

“Plastic pollution is a global crisis that is intensifying every day as we allow the production and use of plastic to continue unchecked,” she said.

“The earth and our health cannot afford ‘business as usual’.”

The Organization for Economic Co-operation says global plastic production grew from 234 million tonnes in 2000 to 460 million tonnes in 2019, while plastic waste grew from 156 million tonnes to 353 million tonnes.

Globally, about half of that waste ends up in landfills, a fifth is incinerated, sometimes to generate electricity, and almost a tenth is recycled. More than a fifth is ‘mismanaged’, meaning it ends up where it shouldn’t be.

The problem of mismanagement is much worse in developing economies, where waste management programs are limited, if they exist at all. In some parts of Africa, almost two-thirds of plastic waste is poorly managed, and in much of Asia, almost half, according to the OECD. That compares with less than a tenth in the world’s richest countries.

Compounding the problem is that rich countries continue to export their waste abroad, despite international rules in place to prevent the practice. Last fall, a Canadian Press investigation in collaboration with Lighthouse Reports and journalists in Myanmar, Thailand and Europe found evidence of Canadian plastic food packaging and sanitary items in waste piles around homes and yards in a Myanmar city.

In Canada, the OECD reports, more than 80 percent of plastic waste is landfilled and only six percent is recycled. Seven percent are poorly managed.

The developing treaty has several areas of focus, including discussions on a production cap, reducing the types of products most commonly found in nature, and so-called chemicals of concern.

A U.N. report, prepared ahead of the second round of treaty talks in Paris last June, said more than 13,000 chemicals are used to make plastics, and that 10 groups of those chemicals are highly toxic and likely to leach from their products. That includes flame retardants, ultraviolet stabilizers and additives used to make plastics harder, waterproof or stain resistant.

Dr. Lyndia Dernis, a Montreal anesthesiologist and member of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, said most plastic additives are endocrine disruptors, causing everything from diabetes and obesity to high blood pressure, infertility, cancer and immunological disorders.

Plastic is very common in medicine. For example, when she started an intravenous treatment for a pregnant patient, she said the material contained phthalates, “a very well-studied endocrine disruptor.”

“In early pregnancy, the baby girl’s reproductive system is in place, including all the eggs for the rest of her life. This means that when I start intravenous treatment, I expose three generations at once: the pregnant mother, her future baby girl and that future baby’s babies,” she said.

Greenpeace and other environmental groups are calling for a 75 percent reduction in plastic production by 2040 compared to 2019 levels. They say recycling is a myth that doesn’t really exist. Most of what Canadians throw into their blue boxes still ends up in the landfill.

Isabelle Des Chênes, vice-president of policy for the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada, said society cannot ban or limit plastic waste.

For Des Chênes, the most important part of the treaty is creating a “circular economy” in which companies design products that can be reused and recycled, rather than thrown away.

That includes investing in equipment to break down plastics back to their original composition so they can be reused, as well as standardizing designs to enable recycling, she said.

Des Chênes said if you just look at potato chip bags, which are made of layers of different plastic polymers, those layers differ depending on the brand. It is easier to recycle those bags when there is consistency.

Guilbeault has promised regulations in Canada to require both minimum amounts of recycled content in plastics and consistency in design. Both will expand a market for recycling that is very limited in Canada. Updates on these promises could be expected during the treaty talks, he suggested.

Some of Canada’s domestic efforts have been put on hold after the Federal Court ruled last fall that a government decision to label all plastics as “toxic” was too broad. Canada uses that designation to ban the production and use of certain types of single-use plastics, such as straws, grocery bags and take-out containers.

Canada is appealing the decision and Guilbeault said the case will not have any impact on federal positions during treaty talks.

During the November treaty talks in Kenya, the draft text of the agreement increased from 35 pages to more than 70 pages. Currently, the text is repetitive, with multiple line item options reflecting varying points of view.

Guilbeault said he would like to have that text “70 percent clean” by the end of the Ottawa Round, with the most difficult issues addressed in side talks over the summer and then in final talks in Korea in the fall.

The treaty talks in Ottawa start Tuesday and last seven days.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 21, 2024.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press