plastics pollution on a beach

Paris Talks a Clear Chance for Canada to Lead on Plastics Pollution

By Nathalie Bernasconi-Osterwalder on May 29, 2023

Today, ministers and policymakers from across the globe are congregating in Paris and, under the auspices of the United Nations, rolling up their sleeves to negotiate “an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment.”

Canada has the chance to play a leadership role on the world stage. The question is, will we seize the opportunity, or sit back as other countries shape global policies that will affect us for decades to come?

Global outrage at photos depicting a floating garbage patch of plastic in the ocean proved to be a significant impetus for these negotiations, but the issue is much broader than just needing to change the way we clean up after ourselves.

The solution needs to tackle everything from how we produce, use and dispose of plastics. The growing challenges related to human health, as well as its links to gender and the lives and livelihoods of Indigenous Peoples, should also be taken into account.  

Canada has already established itself as a vocal supporter of addressing plastic pollution for years. During its G7 presidency, the country developed and signed onto the 2018 Ocean Plastics Charter as well as a “High Ambition Coalition” for the current negotiations.

The real proof of its commitment, however, will come during the coming weeks as it engages in the second round of negotiations on this treaty.

Canada has already laid out some commendable priorities for these talks. It has said the future treaty should seek to clean up, mitigate—and ultimately end—plastic pollution to protect human health and the environment, as well as a focus on the elimination of unnecessary and problematic plastics and chemical additives, resource efficiency and a stronger ‘circular economy’ approach.

Canada also backs the creation of a financial mechanism to support the implementation and the inclusion of capacity building, and addressing just transition, gender, and human rights considerations.

But, if Canada is really serious about tackling plastics pollution, it needs to get bolder.

First, the government should explicitly advocate for provisions to reduce the production of primary plastic polymers and eliminate and restrict specific plastic polymers, chemicals and plastic products of concern. This would ensure that Canada is fully addressing the entire lifecycle of plastic – including the precursors of plastic pollution – from production and manufacture to disposal and circularity.

"A global solution is necessary, and Canada should seize this chance to be a global leader to ensure the treaty is fit for purpose—and ready for impact."

Second, Canada should strengthen its position on pollution and human health. Now that we know more about the sources of plastic pollution throughout the supply chain, Canada could expand global policy to address health impacts throughout the life cycle of plastics including from the toxic constituents of plastic as a material.

Third, links between plastic and plastic pollution with other areas should be addressed. Climate change and plastics, for example, are both driven by the extraction of oil and gas. And let’s also not forget that plastic pollution often has detrimental effects on freshwater systems—to which Canada is home to 20% of the world’s supply—as well as biodiversity, in particular seabirds and ocean creatures. An advisory panel, drawing on diverse scientific voices and perspectives—like that which informs the IPCC—would be a critical tool here to determine potential threats and to formulate clear and proven solutions.

Fourth, Canada could spearhead the talks on means of implementation - including adequate technical assistance, capacity building and the mobilisation of predictable, meaningful and sustainable funding for the implementation of the future treaty.

Finally, it will be important for the government to emphasize global measures and standards, over national measures. This will ensure a level playing field and that global standards set the path towards ending plastic pollution with clear timelines and targets.

Those startling images of plastics floating in the ocean have shown us that plastics pay no regard to national borders. A global solution is necessary, and Canada should seize this chance to be a global leader to ensure the treaty is fit for purpose—and ready for impact.