Nations make strides toward a global treaty to end plastic pollution, but fall short of where we need to be

WWF’s Erin Simon reflects on the fourth round of negotiations

A sculpture of plastic bottles is shaped like a tap and stands in front of the building where negotiations on an international plastic treaty took place

Erin Simon is vice president and head of plastic waste and business at WWF.

Spring had just started to stick when I left my home in Richmond, Va., and headed north to Ottawa, Canada for the fourth round of negotiations for a UN Treaty to End Plastic Pollution, known as INC-4. Maybe it was the warm weather and the blooming flowers I left behind, but I arrived at the negotiations with a cautiously sunny outlook for the week ahead.

Representatives from governments, companies, and other individuals—all with different interests in the negotiations—came together to discuss what is needed and what is possible when it comes to solving plastic pollution through this treaty process.

People from communities most impacted by the production of plastic shared their stories and, with the support of civil society, marched from Ottawa's Parliament Hill to the Shaw Centre where the negotiations were held. Their voices and visuals were a stark reminder that this crisis is beyond an environmental disaster; it also has real and lasting human health implications that we're just starting to fully understand.

The importance of these negotiations was not lost on our US elected officials. For the first time, members of Congress came to the talks to express the need for an ambitious treaty while simultaneously championing legislation back home. We heard the US congressional delegation challenge negotiators to go beyond promises and push for real progress throughout the process. The full breadth of the private sector was also present at the negotiations and showed up in several ways—some more productive than others. On the productive side: the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty continues to call for and support a circular future that starts with reduction and ensures plastic never becomes waste or pollution. Their vision closely aligns with the provisions WWF is advocating for in a final treaty.

And all of this was before the negotiations even kicked off.

With my cautious optimism intact, and my energy still high from a productive weekend, the first few days proved that most countries heard the calls for credible solutions and were serious about making progress in the week ahead. Early on, the chair and negotiators swiftly blocked delay tactics that were so prominent in previous rounds of negotiations, rolled up their sleeves, and got to work. It seemed that the political will we desperately needed finally arrived.

Countries engaged in mostly constructive conversations and began streamlining the text of the treaty.

As the week progressed, it became evident some of the essential ingredients for a successful treaty were on the table for negotiation, including:

  • Addressing problematic and avoidable plastics.
  • Considering the criteria for listing chemicals of concern.
  • Establishing design standards for products so they can be easily reused or recycled.
  • Discussing the importance of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) as a key obligation within the treaty.
  • Debating how all of this will be funded, so every country is set up for success to implement the final agreement.

    Early in the morning on April 30, negotiations wrapped up with a clear mandate for countries to get started on the work needed in the coming months that will set us up for success for the last round of negotiations in November. Unfortunately, with all that was included, there's still no clarity on one key provision that's essential to nearly all other aspects of a successful treaty—the critical need to reduce the production of new plastic.

    We knew this round of negotiating sessions was make-or-break. And I'm glad to know our chances for an effective, globally binding treaty are not fully lost. There's plenty of work ahead; we know low-ambition countries will continue their efforts to water down the treaty and that it is essential that both formal and informal work in the interim continues to clarify technical issues and help guide negotiations. And while I'm still hopeful, I will keep a close eye on what progresses. If delegates can keep up this collaborative, no-nonsense attitude and stay the course, while continuing to apply pressure on those holding progress back, the final international plastic pollution talks in November could make history.

    For now, I'm back in Richmond feeling better than I had when I left the third negotiation round in Nairobi last year, but I know there is still so much more to accomplish. For the months ahead, my advice to everyone who cares about this issue is to keep at it. Keep advocating. Keep raising your voices. These negotiations are proof that the voice of the people can impact the outcome.

    You can help. Call for an ambitious and inclusive global treaty to end plastic pollution.