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Opinion | Science will prevail over profits for a planet of plastic eaters

Some pointed to a recent landmark human rights ruling on climate change as a potential use for a Global Plastics Treaty.

Demonstrators outside the plastic treaty talks in Ottawa
Demonstrators outside the plastic treaty talks in Ottawa (AN/L. Trimoulla)

OTTAWA, Canada – At the fourth round of Global Plastics Treaty talks, I arranged for a large group of environmental advocates to give away "plastic" cookies outside the convention center. Some of the questions we got drove home why we did it.

Two business delegates asked - sarcastically or not, I couldn't tell - if they could actually eat the cookie, or if it was plastic. "Technically, you're already doing that every week," I replied.

Inside the convention center, where more than 4,000 delegates and observers from 176 countries gathered during the last week of April, the talks had a sense of déjà vu. As a communications and project manager for the Swiss-based Gallifrey Foundation, this is the third out of four rounds of treaty negotiations so far that I have attended.

At this latest round, the group of fossil fuel-dependent "like-minded countries" showed their true colors. On behalf of the group, Iran fiercely defended plastic production, citing its indispensability to modern life, trade and industry, while providing a narrow view of the plastic pollution crisis as a waste management issue. So much nonsense in so little time.

The group, which officially includes China, Russia and Saudi Arabia and others that have not publicly declared themselves, argued against limiting plastic production or banning certain chemicals. Instead, it said the treaty should only track plastic waste. On the other side of the spectrum, Rwanda and Peru championed the need for nations to act with ambition.

Rwanda stressed that the majority of countries, particularly in Africa, and members of the 65-nation High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution, which it co-leads with Norway, supported cuts in plastic production. The Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus also spoke eloquently in plenary.

Peru and Rwanda called for a scientific study to be carried out on the “baseline and sustainable levels of production and consumption of primary plastic polymers, including information on imports and exports," aimed at reducing the global use of primary plastic polymers by 40% by 2040 from 2025 levels.

This study will need to be conducted as intersessional work between now and the start of the fifth and final round of talks toward the end of the year in Busan, South Korea. Doing so will tick the circular economy, environmental protection, and collective action boxes. Tackling plastic pollution requires cuts in production; otherwise, it's like trying to empty the bathtub and clean an overflooded home while the tap's still running.

Some countries were aligned on pretty much all the strong production-cutting provisions, but their respective geopolitical situation on other matters made it impossible for them to officially stand side-by-side.

Christopher Chin, executive director of the Center of Oceanic Awareness, Research and Education, delivered one of my favorite moments. “Like a child who wants to have their ice cream before they eat their vegetables, we simply cannot cave to those who refuse to allow progress," he said.

"We must do what is right for everyone, and everyone must eat their veggies – whether or not they admit that it is for their own good," he added. Mic drop. I only wished he’d said cookies instead of ice cream!

Cutting plastic production is paramount

Negotiations in contact groups were conducted under the Chatham House Rule, which lets me share information but not reveal who said it. During a stakeholder meeting, I spoke to the European Union delegation in the name of Break Free From Plastic, a global organization and movement. Chatham House dictates that I won’t share what I said, but I do hope representatives heard the message.

A video from the nonprofit organization, which includes my foundation, debunked some of the messages that industry lobbyists propagated on the billboards, advertising trucks and sandwich board men that showed up in town, sometimes right in front of the convention center.

From the first day on, Contact Group 2 seemed to progress while Contact Group 1 suffered delay tactics. As if it were not enough, it had to change rooms twice due to poor Wi-Fi and sound quality, which were both fixed a couple of days later.

By the second day, negotiating groups reached a more acceptable cruising speed as they worked to streamline the revised zero draft, a 69-pager full of bracketed text – thousands of requested additions, modifications or deletions – that might induce a need for aspirin if you’re not a lawyer or policymaker.

So much delay was caused by all of these brackets. Everywhere. There was so much bracketed text left to be considered later that you might as well have bracketed the entire draft text. It will form the basis for discussions during the intersessional work and at the fifth round of talks in Busan, but the overuse of brackets is a common strategy from countries wanting to sabotage treaties.

In the contact groups, we heard some countries voice support for voting mechanisms as a decision-making process when consensus cannot be reached. Kudos to those who supported this (they were usually applauded after they spoke).

Contact Group 1 later had an intense debate, with polite verbal jousting, over primary plastic polymers – the most crucial aspect of the text, because cutting production would mean a huge dent in industries’ massive profits, and that did not fit their narrative. No wonder the room was full. Same thing again on the next day.

Other things happened in the contact groups, sometimes using what we call the karaoke principle: speak louder and closer to the mic, as if you were in a karaoke, when things get tiresome. The contact groups and plenaries took place in windowless, ugly-lit big rooms that felt like bunkers. I missed the lush, green U.N. Environment Program campus in Nairobi, where we could escape for some fresh air and say hello to cheeky monkeys in between sessions.

A panel of people campaign against plastics in Ottawa
Press conference with (left to right) the Indigenous Peoples' Caucus, Waste Pickers Alliance, Fenceline Watch, CIEL, Society of Native Nations, campaigning against plastics in Ottawa (AN/L. Trimoulla)
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

The importance of scientists giving the big picture

At a panel on marine plastic pollution, a topic the treaty is required to address, one so-called scientist from a low-ambition country claimed that "the dangers of microplastics on health have not been proven." Other panelists almost choked, too, when they heard this bit of junk science.

That same day, a groundbreaking, peer-reviewed paper in Science Advances revealed a direct correlation between plastic production and pollution: each 1% increase in consumer goods companies’ plastic production is associated with a 1% increase in plastic pollution in the environment.

At the same time, I noticed a multiplication of unofficial, closed-door side events organized by industry attendees around the convention center and in the hotels where many of the delegates were staying.

It was appalling to see so much waste at the convention center itself. Although plastic was forbidden within the premises, all of the food served at the cafeteria was packaged to be taken somewhere else to eat in “compostable and safe” cups and cardboard boxes. But these materials were coated with plastics, making them not really compostable.

We kept our morale high with one of our specialties: creating hilarious, topical, and sometimes cutting memes that are strictly for internal use, which helped us lighten the atmosphere and get through some long, long days. Plus, we had a Spotify treaty playlist.

On the third day, the Center for International Environmental Law and other advocacy groups reported that 196 fossil fuel and chemical industry lobbyists were registered to attend the talks. That was up 37% from the third round, which was up 36% from the second round. It exceeded the European Union's entire delegation of 180 people, and was triple the 58 independent scientists from the Scientists' Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty and a seven-fold advantage over the Indigenous Peoples' Caucus.

Sixteen industry lobbyists hailed from China, Dominican Republic, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Malaysia, Thailand, Turkey and Uganda, giving them access to sensitive information behind closed doors and creating an obvious conflict of interest. Meanwhile, some civil society organizations from developing nations struggled to field any representatives who could attend.

Some of the contact groups and subgroups that I attended delivered nice surprises. Primary plastic polymers were discussed at one, and several countries cited existing science on the connection between their production and climate change, and the corresponding need for global reduction targets. Some delegates recognized the years of research establishing the adverse effects of plastic chemicals on human health and the environment.

On the other hand, I still ran across delegations that didn't connect microplastics, additives and health. Hence the importance of having independent scientists, like those from the scientists' coalition hosted by the Norway-based International Knowledge Hub Against Plastic Pollution, talk to them about the big picture.

Police watch over a protest at the plastic treaty talks in Ottawa
Police watch over a protest at the plastic treaty talks in Ottawa (AN/L. Trimoulla)

Science, climate and human rights

It was worrying to hear the INC executive secretary, Jyoti Mathur-Filipp, open a plenary with a reminder that threats and harassments are unacceptable. A member of the scientists' coalition was verbally abused by an industry lobbyist during one of the meetings, which I saw as a sign of how much the industry fears independent scientists.

During Contact Group 2's discussions, many countries supported a text proposed by Norway last year that allowed decision-making by votes rather than consensus, which would kill hopes for a treaty. It's been a recurring issue of vital importance. Janelle Nahmabin, Aamjiwnaang First Nation's elected councilor, drew praise for a rousing speech calling for the talks to include Indigenous peoples, who are already on the front lines of dealing with plastic pollution.

"We — like everyone — have the right to a healthy environment and the results of these negotiations should include the duty to prevent exposure to hazardous substances," she said. "We have been here before industry and before Canada."

At a side event on global plastics law, Jane Muncke, managing director of the Zurich-based Food Packaging Forum, asked a most topical question. She pointed to an April 9 ruling from the European Court of Human Rights that Switzerland failed to do enough to slow climate change impacts, violating the rights of a group of older Swiss women.

The Strasbourg, France-based court's landmark ruling in the case of Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz and Others v. Switzerland could prod more European countries to protect their citizens from climate change. Could that be a model to follow using the Global Plastics Treaty? Muncke asked.

Brace yourself: it's coming. So do keep this story in mind. We concluded the talks at 3:15 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, and we'll campaign until it ends in Busan. Civil society organizations (David) will win the battle against polluters (Goliath).

Laurianne Trimoulla attending the INC4 talks in Ottawa
Laurianne Trimoulla attending the INC4 talks in Ottawa (AN/Justine Maillot)