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Fourth UN meeting on plastics wraps with a plan for future work

Through compromise and hard work, treaty to end plastic pollution inches forward

by Leigh Krietsch Boerner
May 2, 2024 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 102, Issue 14


A group of people huddled around a woman seated at a long table, trying to reach a compromise on a UN treaty document.
Credit: Kiara Worth/IISD Earth Negotiations Bulletin
Negotiators trying to reach a compromise on a plan for future work on the UN plastics treaty.

As the gavel came down at 3:18 a.m. at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) meeting to create a global treaty to end plastic pollution, the room breathed an exhausted sigh of relief. For the first time, the negotiating committee had agreed on a plan for work to be done before the next meeting on the treaty, scheduled for a scant 7 months from now.

Along with over 2,500 participants from 170 countries, a sense of urgency filled the halls at the Shaw Center, in Ottawa, Ontario, for the fourth intergovernmental negotiating committee meeting (INC-4) the last week of April. The next meeting, INC-5, is also the final one, since the 2022 mandate is that negotiations on the treaty be done by the end of 2024.

Early in the week, participants poured in past a 6 m tall sculpture of a faucet spewing discarded plastic and images splashed across buses, taxis, and walls conveying the benefits of plastic.

Despite this hustle and bustle, INC-4 got off to a slow start. Delegates first needed to attack the 69-page annotated draft from INC-3, stuffed with negotiators’ comments and suggestions, to edit it back closer to the 31 pages of original text. Actual negotiation of some parts of the text started only on the sixth of the 7-day meeting. And negotiators didn’t get to other parts of the draft text at all.

Still, many participants are calling the meeting a win. Several negotiators congratulated INC chair Luis Vayas Valdivieso on the final night and expressed gratitude that the committee could agree on the work to be done ahead of INC-5, to be held in Busan, South Korea, Nov. 25 –Dec.1.

“Plastics will last forever, but this INC work should not,” said a member of the Colombian delegation. But the work on the treaty is far from over, said Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, at the close of INC-4. “We have just a few months left before the end-of-year deadline agreed upon in 2022. I urge members to show continued commitment and flexibility to achieve maximum ambition.”

Commitment and flexibility showed throughout the final night’s plenary meeting. The previous day, the committee had discussed what the intersessional work would include, and Vayas came armed with an amended proposal that accounted for the delegates’ comments. It outlined setting up two working groups before INC-5—one on the financing and implementation of the treaty and another on plastic pollution, chemicals of concern in plastics, and the environmentally sound design of plastic products, including enhanced recyclability.

Vayas’s amended proposal was a compromise. When he had presented it at a plenary, many negotiators—including some from Africa, South America, and small island states—noted that discussion of reducing the production of primary plastic polymers (PPP) was missing from the between-meeting work. Making these materials creates both greenhouse gases and pollution, and negotiators from Rwanda asked that technical information on sustainable levels of PPP production and consumption be added to the proposed intersessional docket.

Multiple nongovernmental organizations, including the Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus and the International Alliance of Waste Pickers, made impassioned pleas to the INC committee to include PPP reductions in the treaty text. These groups are disproportionately harmed by toxic chemicals in plastics, according to a UNEP report.

Many negotiators spoke up again at a plenary about the lack of discussion on PPP in the proposal. Others, including groups from China, Saudi Arabia, and the Russian Federation, asked that no contentious issues be included in the intersessional work proposal. Vayas paused the plenary to consider this. After about an hour, he brought backhis original proposal. Several negotiators acknowledged that it was a compromise but encouraged the group to support it.

Delegates started huddling to work out the differences, and Vayas first moved on to other matters. He then paused the proceedings again for further informal discussion. Vayas looked on from the head table, rubbing his chin, while negotiators crowded together, feverishly trying to come to an agreement. After another hour and a half, the negotiations resumed their seats and Vayas continued the meeting. The committee agreed to support his original plan for the intersessional work, and the hall broke into applause.

“The fourth INC is a major turning point,” says Pamela Miller, cochair of International Pollutants Elimination Network, an advocacy group. The draft moved forward with the suggested additions of language on chemicals of concern and PPP, although neither has been finalized in the text. That those topics weren’t eliminated is positive, she says.

Stewart Harris, spokesperson for the International Council of Chemical Associations, said the industry group is happy that finances are going to be discussed before INC-5. The group is also pleased that plastic product design is part of the intersessional work, as plastics and chemical groups are promoting the need to stop plastics from leaking into the environment. When asked about the effects of PPP production on human health, particularly that of indigenous peoples, Harris said that creating a plastics treaty spurring governments to act is the best way to deal with this problem.

In a closing statement, Vayas urged negotiators to keep the momentum from INC-4 and the spirit of compromise. “We have found some common ground, and we are walking this path together until the end,” he said. “I firmly believe that we can carry this same spirit forth to Busan to deliver on our mandate.”



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