Canada hosts global plastics negotiations; petrochemical industry is here too

Tatyana Kovyrina/ This week, representatives of 176 nations are meeting in Ottawa for the fourth round of negotiations toward a global treaty on plastic pollution.

Rachel Morgan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer

This week, representatives of 176 nations are meeting in Ottawa for the fourth round of negotiations toward a global treaty on plastic pollution.

In March 2022, the world’s nations agreed to create this first-of-its-kind document in a tight timeline, less than three years. Two years following the decision, nations are on the fourth of five rounds of negotiations which aim to culminate in the signing of a sweeping international agreement in Korea later this year.

A 69-page draft agreement is being wrestled with this week–the petrochemical industry is watching every move, as it continues to exert pressure on policy makers. 

“High and rapidly increasing levels of plastic pollution represent a serious environmental problem at a global scale, negatively impacting the environmental, social and economic dimensions of sustainable development,” the draft text reads. Policy makers will continue to discuss the final agreement in Ottawa until Monday, April 29.

The draft text deals with plastics on all scales from the bioaccumulation of microplastics undetectable by the human eye, to abolishing the reliance on single-use plastic containers. Its purpose is to mitigate the impact that man-made waste has on the environment with repeated studies showing that less than 10 percent of plastic is recycled—15 percent is collected for recycling but approximately 40 percent of that is disposed of due to lingering residue. Other reports highlight that each day the equivalent of 2,000 garbage trucks full of plastic is dumped into the oceans which kills approximately 100,000 marine mammals every year.

“What we have right now is a very bloated document that has a lot of additional text and different options for what can be included in a treaty,” Melissa Gorrie, law reform manager with Ecojustice, told The Pointer on the first day of negotiations. “And we really want to see those options narrowed down instead of being watered down and confused with a whole bunch of additional optional provisions.”

While the scope of the treaty must address a multitude of issues, there are four key elements that Gorrie wants to see addressed.

The first is addressing plastic production at the source and coming to an agreement on a cap or limit on the production of plastic at the global level that can trickle down to more individualized national targets.

On Monday, the Government of Canada announced the finalization of a federal plastics registry which is the first step in tracking just how much plastic we are producing and using. It requires plastic producers to report every year on the quantity and type of plastic put on the Canadian market. 

“[Plastic] crosses many borders and many hands, and with that, you lose a lot of valuable information, and that information can help any government guide where they need to rein in the plastics industry,” Anthony Merante, senior plastics campaigner at Oceana Canada, told The Pointer. 

Gorrie agreed that the registry is a positive first step because it provides a baseline for national targets and transparency on our production and consumption habits. But given Canada’s position as a member of the high ambition coalition, she stressed she would like to see more in terms of moving beyond this reporting stage and using that information to begin reduction.

To date, plastic use and waste has continued to increase. Global plastic production has doubled since the beginning of the century, weighing in at 400 million tonnes annually. Nearly two thirds of plastic waste comes from products with a lifespan of less than five years and nearly 50 percent is used just once before being thrown away. A report from the Minderoo Foundation, a philanthropic organization, found that in 2021 the world generated 139 million tonnes of single-use plastic waste, 6 million more tonnes than 2019, which is equivalent to one additional kilogram of plastic waste per person.

Much of this increase could be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw single use plastics ramp up in use for disposable gloves and masks, trauma gowns, and at home rapid antigen tests. While you’d be hard pressed to find someone who disagreed with the use of plastic in this time of crisis, Gorrie said that even some of what we consider essential uses could be causing harm to us and the environment. For example, some studies have shown that IV lines contain toxic chemicals that could be leaching into patients and healthcare workers. 

“Microplastics have broken the blood brain barrier. They’re in our arteries, in our blood, they’re in our brains,” she said. “So we have to take a hard look at what is really essential, when we know how much plastic waste we are producing and how much toxicity we are loading into our environment and into our own body.”

Both Gorrie and Merante stressed that there are many things we use plastic for that have a variety of other alternatives available, something that needs to be amplified through the treaty.

“Plastic has become so ubiquitous in our daily lives, that it’s sometimes hard to even see how much unnecessary plastic we’re using even beyond just the single use packaging,” Gorrie said. “Plastic producing companies, over the last number of decades, have done a good job of making us feel like plastics is such an essential part of our life and that we can’t do without it. But there definitely are. We used to live without it.”

“When it comes to plastic, you will hear a myriad of opinions on it, you will hear the opinion that plastic is essential, that it is incorporated in defibrillators and airplanes, and your car, your phone,” Merante added. “So while there are appropriate uses for plastic, we all have to be very mindful there are some things in our lives that we interact with on an intimate level on a habitual level, and ways that the plastic is getting into our bodies, into our air, into our waterways, and into our environment.”

The most obvious examples of single-use plastic are the 1.5 billion single-use coffee cups Canadians use per year or the approximately 500 billion single-use plastic bags used annually across the globe. Both of these examples have fairly simple and viable solutions by using stainless steel or ceramic reusable travel mugs and cloth tote bags for groceries. 

“There has to be marketing to convince people and to help explain to them what it means to have this throwaway mentality … It used to be a very different culture and a different mindset around reusing, and making things that last. And so I think it’s partially a mindset shift or a cultural shift that needs to happen,” Gorrie said.

In 2021, Canada was the first nation to take the leap in labelling plastic as a “toxic” substance under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). The designation paved the way for a single-use plastic ban that the Liberal government promised in 2020. Beginning in December 2022, the federal government began the rollout of legislation that sought to ban six single-use plastic items: checkout bags, cutlery, foodservice ware, stir sticks, straws and ring carriers. By mid-2024 all of these plastic items would cease to be sold in Canada.

Not all industries were supportive of Ottawa’s decision to impose a ban on single-use plastics— listing the substance as toxic cuts into the profits of a $35-billion industry by limiting its ability to produce and sell plastics. In early 2023, a group dubbed the Responsible Plastic Use Coalition (RPUC) filed for judicial review with the federal courts to have the designation thrown out. RPUC is a conglomeration of Canada’s largest plastic producing companies, including Dow Chemical, Imperial Oil and NOVA Chemicals, backed by American oil companies and the governments of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

A November decision stated Ottawa had overstepped by labelling all plastic manufactured items as toxic, and that the category was too broad. The decision noted the CEPA designation was “unreasonable and unconstitutional”. While the ruling itself would not impact the ban on the six single-use plastic items, the CEPA designation is needed for it to remain in federal jurisdiction; without it, the regulations would have to be rolled back.

The federal government immediately filed for an appeal and the court decided that in the interim period, the ban would remain in place. Ecojustice is representing a wide range of environmental organizations as an intervenor in the case. 

“The status is in limbo,” Gorrie said “We feel that there’s definitely an opportunity for the federal government to still take action to comply with whatever court decision is made, but still take action on single use plastics.”

Another element that Gorrie said must be included in the treaty is recognizing and working to limit chemicals of concern.

A report released last month by the Norwegian Research Council found that the number of chemicals found in plastics is at least 16,000, a stark increase from the 13,000 previously thought. Researchers found that over one quarter of these chemicals are toxic but despite this, only six percent are subject to global regulations. Of the 4,200 chemicals of concern recognized broadly, over 1,300 are known to be marketed for use in plastics.

Chemicals of concern are those that can persist in the air, water, soil and organisms for a long period of time. One example is chlorine leaching from chlorinated plastics that contaminates water, leading to harmful effects on any organism that drinks it. Chemicals also become more problematic as the plastic breaks down. Additives such as phthalates and Bisphenol A (commonly known as BPA) leach out of plastic as the particles break down and have been widely known to cause hormone disruption in both vertebrates and invertebrates. Many of these chemicals also bioaccumulate in fatty tissue making their way up the food chain.

While the impacts of plastic on the environment and other organisms have been widely talked about, Gorrie said the missing link is the impact that plastics have on our own human health. 

We have all seen photos or videos of birds caught in six pack rings or turtles with straws stuck in their nostrils. We know plastic kills, but it is also killing us. 

“Our reliance on plastics could be the biggest gamble in the story of human health, in history. We are all ingesting and inhaling microplastics. They are everywhere. Are we just hoping they are safe, or is even the remotest possibility they might be toxic so terrifying that we can’t contemplate it?” Kathleen Rogers, President of said in a report.

Members of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, located just south of Lake Huron, sent out a plea to upper levels of government last week after high levels of benzene—greatly exceeding Ontario Ministry of Environment Standards—were reported from an air monitoring station located in the community. 

The culprit is a chemical manufacturing plant located in south Sarnia that is responsible for the production of a multitude of plastic products. Last week, members of the Band Council—whose office is directly across from the INEOS plant—were sent home after experiencing symptoms of benzene exposure/toxicity.

The Aamjiwnaang First Nation has been calling on all levels of government to take immediate action against the plant’s operations. After a week, the Ontario government announced it would be taking “swift action” but members of the community are saying it doesn’t go far enough. 

The Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks issued a provincial order last week which requires INEOS to create a written plan to address the high levels of carcinogenic chemical emissions, implement a new system of notifying the public of high levels of emissions and investigate the source of the chemical leak. 

But the provincial order is the fourth that has been handed down to INEOS to address benzene emissions in the past five years, and the province has never issued a fine to the site. Members of the community have stated that the province is not taking strong enough action and are demanding the plant be shut down entirely.

“We’ve seen so far, a lack of centering of impacted voices, frontline communities, Indigenous peoples, etc. What are the solutions that are going to work for them who have currently borne the brunt of plastic pollution to date and making sure that that is addressed, and that their interests and their rights and their needs are centered and addressed through this treaty process,” Gorrie said.  

Another report from titled Babies vs. Plastics exposed the health risks, especially pertaining to infants, that plastic poses. Plastic is used in a wide range of baby items from diapers to soothers, and toys to car seats and highchairs. 

But the report highlighted one study which found that phthalate exposure was associated with a 20 percent higher rate of childhood cancer.  

“We can no longer blindly pretend that plastics are inert— they break down into toxic microplastics that have poisoned our soil, oceans and air.  We have a right to know what the plastic industry knows about the impact of their products on our health,” Rogers said. 

Microplastics have broken the blood brain barrier meaning, that they are found in virtually every part of our bodies. In fact, babies of today were exposed to microplastics before they were even born as they have the capability to infiltrate the placenta wall.

“Pollution starts at the very beginning stages of plastic production. It’s not just an end of the pipeline problem, we have to fight it at its source,” Merante said. “And at every point in which plastic is polluting, that is air water and soil and refinement of oil and gas and the manufacturing of petrochemical and toxic products. That is the sale and distribution of plastic on our food, on our water, on the things that we’re ingesting, and it is also what is happening to us afterwards if we’re not investing in refilled and reused, durable materials, things that are more sustainable and safeguarding our environment.”

Just as we have with climate change, we have let the plastic problem get so big that no single country or government can solve it. Just like carbon dioxide, plastic knows no borders — plastic that enters in the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of Vancouver could end up washed ashore in Japan, although it is much more likely that it will get trapped in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch which contains approximately 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic.

Thus, tackling the plastic problem requires a global effort. One that hinders on curtailing the reliance on the oil industry and works in tandem with other sustainability efforts.

“Enough is enough,” Karen Wirsig, plastics campaign manager at Environmental Defence, said in a press release. “It’s time to end the plastic era.”