A backgrounder on the fourth round of the global plastics treaty negotiations (INC-4), which take place in Ottawa, Canada | Traditional, unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishnaabeg People, April 21 – 29, 2024

Joint media backgrounder on behalf of:

  • Environmental Defence
  • Oceana Canada
  • Ecojustice
  • Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment
  • David Suzuki Foundation

Context: The UN Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution is holding its fourth session (INC-4) at the Shaw Centre, Ottawa, April 21 – 29.

In 2022, the United Nations Environment Assembly, comprising heads of states and environment ministers from UN member countries, endorsed a historic resolution to end plastic pollution and develop an international legally binding agreement on plastic pollution by the end of 2024. The treaty aims to address the entire lifecycle of plastic, from extraction of raw materials to production to end-of-life of plastic products.

With only one more session of negotiations scheduled for later this year, pressure is on Canada as host country alongside governments around the world to make meaningful progress in Ottawa. Time is running out to finalize the treaty by the end of this year and to ramp up action to end plastic pollution before it’s too late.

Canada is a member of the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution (HAC), a group of more than 60 countries representing every UN region with the goal to end plastic pollution by 2040.

Civil society organizations are attending as observers to the negotiations including Canadian and international NGOs, Indigenous organizations and representatives of impacted communities in the Global South. There is also expectation of a large industrial lobbyist presence.

What’s at stake: Why INC-4 needs to highlight health

Plastics threaten human health at every stage of its life cycle, from chemicals in pre-production to the breakdown of microplastics.

People are widely exposed to plastics and their toxic components. Many of the 16,000 chemicals found in plastics are linked to exposure-related diseases such as cancers, endocrine disruption, and reproductive harms. These adverse health outcomes impact people at different stages of life, from conception through adulthood. They are costing our governments billions in health care. Children, racialized and Indigenous People, women-identifying persons and workers disproportionately experience the adverse health outcomes of plastics.

The Treaty must therefore respect human rights, limit the production of plastics, eliminate unnecessary plastics products including single use plastic, prioritize detoxification, and ensure transparency of plastic products and materials. Action on harmful additives, including chemicals of concern in the families of phthalates, bisphenols, PFAS, flame retardants, and heavy metals is needed. Industry cannot be allowed to use our communities as test subjects nor continue to expose generations of people to potential harms. Where there are unknown or uncertain impacts of chemicals in plastics, the precautionary principle should be applied to prevent the health damage that would occur while waiting for definitive proof of harm.

INC-4: What we are looking for in an ambitious global plastics treaty

Ending plastic pollution by 2024 as a triple win: for human health, climate protection and safeguarding biodiversity. The right approach is one that is embedded in the protection of human rights and Indigenous Rights, aligned with the Paris Agreement objective to transition away from fossil fuels, and the objectives of the Global Biodiversity Framework.

Canada must advance human rights, human health and environmental justice approaches that address the disproportionate impacts of plastic pollution on Indigenous Peoples, racialized and frontline communities, workers, the Global South and Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Canada must not allow negotiations to be held hostage by low-ambition countries and the influence of the fossil fuel and plastics industry through a consensus-based model that caters to the lowest-common denominator.

Canada must support an ambitious global plastics treaty that should include:

  • Limits on global plastic production and consumption. Global plastic production is increasing exponentially. The treaty will only be successful in ending plastic pollution if it addresses the problem at the source with binding reduction targets for primary plastic polymers and precursor chemicals.
  • Transparency and traceability requirements for chemicals used in plastic production and products, and phase out of problematic plastic polymers, chemicals of concern, additives and processing aids. Phase-outs and bans of toxic substances have been very successful in other environmental treaties. The Montreal Protocol banning substances that deplete the ozone layer for instance, is hailed as one of the most successful environmental agreements to have been adopted.
  • Global prohibition on non-essential, single-use plastic items.
  • Centring and addressing the needs, health and rights of those most impacted by plastic pollution, including Indigenous Peoples, frontline communities, workers, the Global South and Small Island Developing States (SIDS).
  • Ensure that the Rights, Knowledges and Sovereign Authorities of Indigenous Peoples are respected and upheld in the treaty negotiation process, the treaty text and its implementation and align the Treaty with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This requires that Indigenous voices be centered in treaty negotiations with funding provided to support Indigenous Nations.

What we are looking for from Canada: leadership to tackle plastic pollution at home

The federal government has other tools to tackle plastic pollution at the same time as it appeals the Federal Court ruling that struck down the listing of plastic manufactured items as toxic substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). Canada must urgently:

  • Update the science assessment of plastic pollution, particularly with respect to the impact of plastic at all phases of its life cycle on human health.
  • Use the Chemicals Management Plan to address the environmental and health hazards posed by classes of chemical plastics additives, including phthalates, bisphenols, PFAs, and flame retardants. The Watchlist under CEPA could be used to immediately flag these substances of concern, given their potential and likelihood to be CEPA-toxic and their presence in food contact material, children’s products and textiles. The government must establish a rapid timeline to introduce regulations that prohibit the most harmful substances from uses such as food contact, personal care, and clothing, and prevent pollution.
  • Step up support for infrastructure and systems for widespread and accessible reuse/refill of containers and packaging to provide a safe alternative to throwaway plastics and packaging.
  • Exclude from the definition of recycling incineration or biofuel conversion of plastics, including:
    • Refuse-derived fuel
    • Advanced recycling
    • Chemical recycling
    • Depolymizeration
    • Gasification
    • Energy from waste
    • Waste to energy
    • Cement incorporation
  • End subsidies for fossil fuels and petrochemicals, which boost the use of plastic.
  • End exports of plastic waste.

As well, the government must commit to expanding the ban on harmful single-use plastic packaging by taking a systems level approach to support reduction and reuse:

  • Ban on e-commerce single-use plastic packaging
  • Ban on dine-in single-use plastic packaging
  • Production caps on single-use containers for beverage bottlers
  • Bans on problematic plastic packaging polymers like polystyrene (inclusive of solid, expanded and extruded forms) and polyvinyl chloride
  • Ban on harmful litter items like lids, cups, and cigarette filters
  • Ban on problematic flexible single-use plastic packaging containers like overwrap, produce bags, and pouches

The government must also apply an environmental justice and environmental rights lens to address the disproportionate impacts of plastic pollution on Indigenous Nations, racialized communities and other equity-deserving groups, and ensure federal policies do not further entrench environmental racism.

Spokespeople available for comment:

  • Why INC-4 needs to tackle health:
    • Dr. Lyndia Dernis, Dr. Sharon Dodd, Dr. George Kitching, Dr. Atanu Sarkar – Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment
  • Ambitious global treaty:
    • Sabaa Khan, Director General, David Suzuki Foundation
    • Melissa Gorrie, Law Reform Manager, Ecojustice
  • Tackling plastic pollution in Canada:
    • Karen Wirsig – Environmental Defence Canada
    • Anthony Merante – Oceana Canada

For more information or media interviews, please contact:

Further reading:

Fourth Session | UNEP – UN Environment Programme – including draft text agreement