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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Plastic Pollution Treaty Talks

Air Date: Week of

Plastic and other waste in the Himalaya mountains. The fourth of five UN plastics treaty talks aimed at addressing the growing global problem of plastic pollution took place in Ottawa, Canada in April. (Photo: Sylwia Bartyzel, Unsplash)

The fourth meeting of UN talks aimed to address plastic pollution took place this April in Ottawa, Canada. The goal is to have a legally binding international agreement on plastics pollution by the end of 2024. Professor Maria Ivanova, Director of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University joined Living on Earth’s Paloma Beltran to give an update on what happened at these most recent talks.


BELTRAN: Plastic waste has been found in the lowest parts of the oceans, at the top of Mt. Everest, and even as microplastics in the human placenta. This waste damages human health and, according to UNESCO, kills up to 100,000 marine mammals each year. A series of UN-led talks aims to address this problem with a legally binding agreement on plastic pollution. The fourth meeting in Ottawa this April began negotiations on the text of the treaty, and the pressure is on to finalize the agreement at the fifth and final meeting in Busan, South Korea, this November. Joining us now to discuss the plastic treaty is Professor Maria Ivanova, Director of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. She’s a former delegate who observed the session in Ottawa. Professor Ivanova, welcome back to Living on Earth!

IVANOVA: Thank you very much for having me back.

BELTRAN: This is the fourth out of five sessions of these plastic talks. What changes have you seen at this most recent conference in Ottawa?

IVANOVA: Indeed, it is the fourth and next-to-last intergovernmental gathering before we hope to have a treaty. I have observed a few changes. I can put them in three large buckets, but I have seen a change in narrative. The discussion on plastics started as a discussion on marine plastics. What Rwanda and Peru did was to change the narrative. So we are talking about the full life cycle of plastics, and the production and consumption and disposal of plastics, including primary plastic polymers. I have also seen a commitment to global goals for a treaty. Yes, we recognize we do need national action plans. But more and more countries see the necessity for robust and rigorous global goals. And the third bucket, I would say, of agreement and change is the implementation space. We see real commitment to creating a financial mechanism for the treaty. And that commitment also goes hand in hand with the recognition of the need to improve capacity in various countries, but also the capacity of civil society, of academia to engage and contribute to these discussions.

A painting by the Rwandan artist Innocent Nkurunziza hangs in Maria Ivanova’s office. Nkurunziza attended the Ottawa plastic treaty talks as a member of the Northeastern University observer delegation. (Photo: Courtesy of Maria Ivanova)

BELTRAN: Yeah, so let's talk about implementation. What are some concrete methods that have been proposed to limit plastic pollution?

IVANOVA: As you can imagine, there are producing countries—of oil and gas, of plastics, of polymers, of chemicals that go into plastics—, there are recipient countries around the world, and there is civil society and academia. So the ideas for concrete measures vary across the board. And to be frank, we have not seen "here is a concrete list of measures." But we are seeing very concrete commitment on the table—$15 million dollars from the United States—to challenge countries, to challenge stakeholders to come up with innovative solutions. And I think that is a very positive development.

BELTRAN: Reducing plastic pollution is the main topic of these talks. But now the idea of curbing plastic production is on the table. But this is a contentious topic. What kind of disagreements have there been around limiting plastic production? And what progress have you seen towards resolving them?

IVANOVA: You're absolutely right, this is one of the fault lines in the negotiations. Are we limiting plastic pollution? Are we eliminating plastic pollution, which is what the treaty title calls for? And how are we doing that? Countries like Rwanda and Peru state very clearly, to limit or to eliminate plastic pollution, we have to reduce the production of primary plastic, and that requires an overall decrease in production. Of course, countries that produce fossil fuels, or the raw materials for plastic—Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Russia, Kuwait—are saying, well, no, this is outside of the remit of the treaty, let's focus on the pollution side and the disposal and the recycling. But the two go hand in hand. And we have not resolved that issue yet. But when you talk with the delegates in these oil producing countries, you see that there are opportunities to sit down and talk through extended producer responsibility. How are we doing that at the national level? How can we take those experiences at the international level? So I do believe in goodwill among negotiators at the end of the day.

BELTRAN: And one of the topics that needs to be finalized in the next set of talks in Korea is the question of financing, how developing countries will get the money to carry out the commitments on plastic pollution. What possible financing methods have been discussed, and what are some points of contention?

IVANOVA: Governments have discussed a range of financing mechanisms, from a financing mechanism within the UN system that will have contributions from countries and then be disbursed to those countries that need the support, to an idea that Ghana proposed to have a fee on plastic import or plastic production that would help finance these substitutes or changes, to also getting financial contributions from the private sector.

BELTRAN: Now, observer delegations like the one you are on have only five seats available to them. Your delegation from Northeastern included an artist in one of those positions. Who was that, and why do you think it is important to have artists involved in this discussion?

Maria Ivanova is Director of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and Professor of Public Policy at Northeastern University. She was part of a delegation from Northeastern at the plastic talks in Ottawa in April 2024. (Photo: Courtesy of Maria Ivanova)

IVANOVA: International negotiations are usually technical issues. There are issues about substance, whether it's on polymers, on chemicals, plastics of concern, yet their ultimate implementation depends on the change in human behavior. How do we get to that change? It's through inspiration. And I have found and am now a firm believer that the power of art is absolutely critical to inspiring people to see a different future and to come up with innovative solutions. So we included an artist, Innocent Nkurunziza, from Rwanda, the founder of the Inema Arts Center in Kigali. His works are done on renewable tree bark, tree bark that regrows—you don't have to cut the tree. It is done in a way that is sustainable, renewable, environmentally aware. What was really critical throughout the plastics negotiations is that we have seen the art of people like Benjamin Von Wong, who created the tap that was there in March, this big 30-foot tap with plastic falling out of it saying "turn off the tap" that uses plastic waste to jolt us into action. What we brought in with Innocent Nkurunziza is the other end of the art space, the vision for a plastics-free future.

BELTRAN: You know, there is still some chance that these talks could fall apart and not result in a treaty at all. What steps are being taken to make sure that the treaty does go through?

IVANOVA: As with any negotiation, there is always the possibility of having no outcome. But I have seen genuine commitment, both from member states and from the international space, the UN Environment Programme that provides the secretariat for these negotiations, to have a final outcome, to have an agreement. The fact that governments agreed to intersessional work is one example of their commitment to come out of these talks with a real international agreement on ending plastic pollution.

BELTRAN: Maria Ivanova is Director of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and Professor of Public Policy at Northeastern University. Thank you so much for joining us, Maria.

IVANOVA: Thank you very much for having me.



Website of the United Nations Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution

AP News | “5 Takeaways from the Global Negotiations on a Treaty to End Plastic Pollution”

Reuters | “Plastic Pollution Talks Make Modest Progress but Sidestep Production Curbs”

Learn more about Maria Ivanova


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