Last month, Canada hosted UN talks in Ottawa for global leaders to discuss drafting a first-ever global treaty to reduce plastic pollution. The draft is due by the end of the year. At the U.N. Environmental Assembly in 2022, the world’s nations agreed to develop a legally binding agreement by the end of 2024 to address what they call the world’s plastic pollution crisis. The treaty is meant to address plastics regulation through their entire lifecycle – from when they are produced, to how they are used and then disposed of.  It further extends governmental power over something central to human life.  The meeting in Ottawa was the fourth meeting of the  Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution. The next and final committee meeting is to be held this fall in South Korea.

Nearly 200 fossil-fuel and chemical-industry lobbyists, who are opposed to strict production caps and product phase-outs, were present at the meeting as most plastics are made from fossil fuels and chemicals. Plastic producers and chemical companies want a treaty that focuses on recycling plastic and reuse, sometimes referred to as “circularity.” Plastic production is projected to double or triple globally by 2050 because of their widespread use and versatility. Takeaways from the meeting include:

  • A first ever discussion of the actual text of what is supposed to become a global treaty to end plastic pollution.
  • Continuation of the work on the treaty to determine how to finance its implementation, to assess the chemicals of concern in plastic products and to understand how products are designed.
  • A commitment to focus on reducing harmful chemicals produced by plastic and making plastic products easier to recycle and to reuse.
  • Limiting how much plastic is manufactured globally in the text despite strong objections from plastic-producing countries and companies and oil and gas exporters. The “Like-Minded Countries,” which include Saudi Arabia, Russia and China, believe the treaty should focus only on tracking plastic waste. That position is shared by the petrochemical industry.

The Positions of the Various Countries and Companies 

The 60-nation “High-Ambition Coalition”, which includes European Union countries, island nations and Japan, Mexico and Australia, wants to end plastic pollution by 2040. They argue for a strong treaty that tackles production and requires transparency and controls for chemicals used in the process. The coalition wants common, legally binding provisions to “restrain and reduce the production and consumption of primary plastic polymers to sustainable levels.” They also are proposing measures such as phasing out “problematic” single-use plastics and banning certain chemical additives that could carry health risks.

The United States also wants to end plastic pollution by 2040, but unlike the High-Ambition Coalition, it wants countries to set their own plans and to detail those plans in pledges sent regularly to the United Nations. It has refrained from joining any negotiating bloc. Measures proposed by U.S. negotiators include requiring countries to tackle certain chemicals that have raised public health concerns as well as “single use” plastic products that are deemed wasteful.

The Asia Pacific group wants countries to receive financial and technical assistance for waste management infrastructure as they take on new obligations under the agreement. The Africa group called for the creation of a new multilateral fund to help developing countries meet new obligations under a treaty, called attention to the fact that the continent has become a target for illegal trade of plastic waste and urged negotiators to prioritize “waste prevention and reduction before non-toxic waste recycling and disposals.” Asia and Africa prefer these approaches because together, they account for about 88 percent to 99 percent of all river-borne plastic waste, according to the World Economic Forum.  In a 2018 report, they found the following:  “By analyzing the waste found in the rivers and surrounding landscape, researchers were able to estimate that just 10 river systems carry between 88 and 99 percent of the plastic that ends up in the ocean from rivers. Eight of them are in Asia: the Yangtze; Indus; Yellow; Hai He; Ganges; Pearl; Amur; Mekong; and two in Africa – the Nile and the Niger.” Clearly, this is not an issue caused by the United States or Europe.

The petrochemical industry is against production caps because it would lead to higher prices for consumers. Instead, the companies believe the treaty should address plastics only after they are made. Their focus is on encouraging the reuse or recycling of plastics, including deploying technology that can turn plastic into fuel and they argue that companies should be allowed to disclose the chemicals used in production voluntarily.

More than 200 consumer-facing companies including Unilever, PepsiCo and Walmart have joined the Business Coalition for a Plastics Treaty. The group supports a treaty that includes production caps, use “restrictions and phase-outs, reuse policies, product design requirements, extended producer responsibility, and waste management,” according to a statement.


Single-use plastic production rose globally by 6 million metric tons per year from 2019 to 2021 despite tougher worldwide regulations. Around 137 million metric tons of single-use plastics were produced from fossil fuels in 2021, and it is expected to increase by another 17 million metric tons by 2027. Almost a fifth of the world’s plastic waste is burned and less than 10 percent of it is recycled, according to U.N. data. The production of plastics accounts for some 5 percent of carbon emissions and could grow to 20 percent by 2050 unless limited, according to a report from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

China has driven rapid growth in global plastic demand over the past 15 years. Despite bans on some single-use products starting in 2019, it accounted for half of the 15 million metric tons of new capacity that came online over 2019 to 2021 period. China’s Sinopec is expected to build new production facilities over the 2019 to 2027 period, with more than 5 million metric tons of annual capacity planned. Sinopec was the first Chinese company to join the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, a global coalition of companies supporting sustainable plastic, and is developing its own biodegradable plastic products.

In last year’s “five-year plan,” China indicated it would tackle plastic production and that it would make deep cuts in the production and usage of single-use plastics and ban some products entirely. Chinese production growth is expected to slow, but the country still accounts for half of the top 20 companies planning to increase virgin polymer capacity up to 2027.

The state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco plans by 2030 to be sending nearly one-third of its produced oil to petrochemical plants to make plastics by 2030. Exxon Mobil plans to increase production capacity by around 4 million metric tons annually over the 2019 to 2027 period.


In 2022, it was agreed that a draft treaty document on plastic pollution would be completed by the end of 2024. A number of meetings have been held to that effect but the focus by countries and companies differs widely on what the treaty should contain. While the European Union wants production limits and an end to plastic pollution by 2040, the United States wants individual country plans similar to the Paris Accord, most likely to avoid the need to get Senate ratification. Plastic producers and chemical companies want the focus to be on reuse and recycling as forced production limits will increase prices for consumers.

Plastics are versatile and are used in many industries from health to food storage. Limiting their production in order to deal with single-use plastic waste pollution is like attacking a nail with a sledge hammer.  But politics in the EU and the United States is moving in that direction daily with regulations and edicts on what Americans are allowed to buy, what fuels can run their vehicles, what fuels can produce electricity, what fuels can heat their homes and what fuels they are allowed to cook with. Under President Biden’s mandates, the market will no longer be the determiner of what technology and sources are best for Americans.

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