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What You Need to Know:

  • 175 countries just participated in the fourth round of negotiating a treaty to address the global plastic pollution crisis and the role of plastic production in fueling environmental injustice.
  • Large plastic producers slow progress to address plastic production and aim to keep the scope of the proposed treaty to managing waste.
  • The negotiations ended on an underwhelming note of compromise, in which the interests of the planet and frontline communities took a back seat to the agenda of the fossil fuel industry.
  • Once ratified, the treaty will be legally binding, so governments could face real consequences if they don’t abide by it.
  • The U.S. must support a global plastics treaty that will truly address the plastics crisis, including the harms that plastic causes to communities across the entire supply chain.

Last week a team of Earthworkers, along with other NGOs and people living on the frontlines of plastic production in the U.S., traveled to Ottawa, Canada — the traditional, unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabeg People — for the fourth round of negotiations of the Global Plastics Treaty.

The purpose of the treaty is for countries to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution. The week of negotiations and outside events were packed with high and lows, but the overall negotiations ended on a note of compromise, in which the interests of the planet and frontline communities took a back seat to the agenda of the fossil fuel industry. Here’s why:

  • The negotiations left the most controversial topic, intersessional work that addresses plastic production, to the end, with little time for discussion. 
  • While there will be work done on the treaty between now and INC-5, which will take place in November 2024 in Busan, the member states decided to exclude primary plastic polymers from those intersessional conversations. This will make it more difficult to include text on extraction or production reduction in the final treaty. 
  • Countries uniting around the Bridge to Busan are seeking a comprehensive treaty, and Rwanda and Peru stepped up to champion plastic production reduction putting forward a proposal for 40% reduction by 2040.while nations like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, India that are high producers of plastics, want to keep the focus narrow.  
  • The negotiations were hampered by 196 registered fossil fuel and chemical industry lobbyists. This was a 37% increase from INC-3 and the lobbyists were seven times greater than the Indigenous Peoples caucus. 
  • Smaller nations with fewer negotiators are limited in their ability to participate in every working group, work longer hours, and have more difficulty keeping up with changing policy text. 

The petrochemical industry in the U.S. is a major source of toxic pollution that can cause deadly health impacts, damage local environments, and worsen the climate crisis. The fracking boom is fueling the growth of the plastics industry where it is largely concentrated in Texas and Louisiana and is rapidly expanding in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. 

Frontline community members who face health and environmental emergencies due to pollution from plastic manufacturing plants and material extraction in the U.S. attended the negotiations to advocate for a treaty that addresses not just how plastics are discarded, but also how much plastic is produced and how it is used.

Frankie Orona, executive director of Society of Native Nations, has been involved in the Global Plastic Treaty negotiations from the start. At INC-4 he continued to play a key leadership role within the Indigenous Peoples Caucus, who have been explicit in their demands for protection from the harms of fossil fuel extraction and of false solutions like incineration and chemical recycling—which is a requirement for defending their right to a healthy environment—as well as in their call for real circular solutions like non-toxic reuse systems and other Indigenous practices. 

“Negotiating with the U.S. and other oil states has felt like trying to negotiate with industry, always prioritizing profit over the well-being of people and the planet,” Orona said. “In order to have an ambitious Treaty, we need a fundamental shift. We need intersessional work with the inclusion of Indigenous Peoples—who are rights holders with traditional knowledge and a deep understanding of sustainable resource management—as well as frontline and fenceline communities—who, for generations, have borne the brunt of environmental damage from fossil fuels and petrochemical production. By including these often-marginalized groups, we can move beyond ‘business as usual’ to achieve an ambitious Treaty that protects our environment, respects human rights, and fosters a more equitable and sustainable future for all of us and Mother Earth.”

 Jill Hunkler, director of Ohio Valley Allies, attended the negotiations in Ottawa where she shared with members of the U.S. delegation her experiences living alongside petrochemical facilities. The Ohio River Valley, in particular West Virginia, is the birthplace of petrochemicals. Since the opening of Union Carbide Corporation’s plant in Clendenin, West Virginia in 1920, the air, land, and water in communities across the Ohio River Valley have been polluted by the extraction of materials necessary to create petrochemicals and their production.

“I had been living in a sacrifice zone due to the polluting and poorly regulated fracking operations for years when the petrochemical industry arrived, creating even more toxic air and water pollution in the Ohio River Valley,” Hunkler said. “We are not only dealing with negative health impacts, but also unsafe roadways due to heavy industry traffic, air and noise pollution, public well and spring water contamination, pipeline explosions and well pad fires — including one that contaminated a stream that feeds our mighty Ohio River, resulting in the death of 70,000 fish. The cradle-to-grave impacts of plastic on human health and the environment must be considered in these negotiations.” 

John Beard Jr., founder and CEO of Port Arthur Community Action Network, went to INC-4 to lend his voice and action to demand that the treaty addresses the entire plastics supply chain, chemicals of concern, pollution and waste management on a global scale. The petrochemical industry is either planning or has recently completed more than 100 expansion projects in the Gulf South, where hundreds of facilities are already polluting overburdened communities, like John’s hometown of Port Arthur.

“Plastics are in our rivers, lakes, oceans, even showing up in the placentas and bloodstreams of mothers and their unborn children,” Beard said. “A legally binding global plastic treaty is necessary to address not only the production of plastics, but also the entire lifecycle of plastics, plastic pollution, and chemical waste management. Our government, particularly the State Department, must negotiate a strong treaty devoid of loopholes, false solutions and ambiguous language that support industry’s profits over the lives and health of people in the Gulf South and the planet.”

The most effective way to address the health and environmental harms from plastic production and manufacturing in the U.S. is to immediately and significantly reduce the production and use of plastic. That’s why we will continue advocating for the U.S. to support a global plastics treaty that will truly address the plastics crisis, including the harms that plastic causes to communities across the entire supply chain.