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Plastic, Plastic Everywhere, Even At The UN’s ‘Plastic Free’ Conference

Above photo: An art installation outside the Ottawa convention center. James Park for ProPublica.

At a conference meant to address the plastic crisis, pro-plastic messaging was inescapable.

Meanwhile, industry insiders — some positioned as government delegates — were given access to vital negotiations.

When I registered to attend last month’s United Nations conference in Canada, organizers insisted it would be a “plastic free meeting.” I wouldn’t even get a see-through sleeve for my name tag, they warned; I’d have to reuse an old lanyard.

After all, representatives from roughly 170 countries were gathering to tackle a crisis: The world churns out 400 million metric tons of plastic a year. It clogs landfills and oceans; its chemical trail seeps into our bodies. Delegates have been meeting since 2022 as part of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution in hopes of ending this year with a treaty that addresses “the full life cycle of plastic, including its production, design and disposal.”

The challenge before delegates seemed daunting: How do you get hundreds of negotiators to agree on anything via live, group editing? Especially when representatives from fossil fuel and chemical companies would be vigorously working to shift the conversation away from what scientists say is the only solution to the crisis: curbing plastic production.

But when I got to the meeting, I discovered those industry reps were not the sideshow; they were welcomed into the main event.

They could watch closed-door sessions off limits to reporters. Some got high-level badges indistinguishable from those worn by country representatives negotiating the treaty. These badges allowed them access to exclusive discussions not open to some of the world’s leading health scientists.

In a setting that was supposed to level the inequalities among those present, I watched how country delegates and conference organizers did little to minimize them, making what was already going to be a challenging process needlessly opaque and avoidably contentious.

With such high stakes, I asked the INC Secretariat — the staff at the UN Environment Programme who facilitated the negotiations process — why they hadn’t set rules on conflict of interest or transparency. They told me that wasn’t their job, that it was up to countries to take the lead. But in some cases, countries pointed me right back to the UN.

Over five days, I would come to understand just how hard it will be to get meaningful action on plastics.

Day 1: Represent The Public? Stay Out.

From the moment I landed in Ottawa, the counter-argument of the plastics industry was inescapable, from wall-sized ads at the airport to billboards on trucks that cruised around the downtown convention center.

Their message: Curtailing plastic production would spell literal doom. (I could almost see the marketing pitch: Think of the children!)

These plastics deliver water, read one, depicting a girl drinking from a bottle in what was implied to be a disaster zone.

I headed to the media registration desk and got my green-striped badge, which placed me at the lowest rung of the pecking order.

At the top were people on official delegations. Their red-striped badges opened the door to every meeting, from the large “plenaries” where rows of country representatives spoke into microphones, to smaller working groups where negotiators hashed out specifics like whether to ban certain chemicals used in plastic.

The majority of the attendees wore orange badges. This hodgepodge of so-called observers included scientists, environmentalists, Indigenous peoples and some industry reps, though the color code made no distinction among them.

Observers were allowed into certain working groups at the discretion of government delegates.

Reporters could attend only plenaries.

These huge, open sessions were like the UN equivalent of Senate floor speeches: declarations and repetition to get ideas into the public record.

Veteran observers tracked the real action in the margins, standing in the back of the ballroom to watch who was talking to whom. It was an art, they said: You want to stroll close enough to read the small print on name tags, but you have to be chill about it.

I was not chill about the lack of access, which prevented sources from talking about what happened behind closed-door proceedings. They were governed by rules that prohibited those present from recording the meetings or revealing who had said what.

Reporters trying to inform the public and hold governments accountable were completely shut out. Yet somehow the rules allowed the industry whose survival depends on more plastic production to dispatch reps to watch negotiators at work.

The rules follow the “norms when it comes to fundamentals of negotiating, multilateralism, and diplomacy amongst UN Member States,” said a statement from the INC Secretariat. These meetings are managed by the countries negotiating the treaty, the statement said; the countries set the rules.

But when I asked the U.S. State Department, which led the U.S. delegation in Ottawa, whether journalists should have more access, a spokesperson directed me back to the UN.

Day 2: “The Human Right To Science”

I heard about an exhibit at the nearby Westin hosted by the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. It sounded like an environmental group, but an online search showed it was founded by corporations including Dow and ExxonMobil. Dow didn’t respond to a request for comment. ExxonMobil said it attended the conference “to be a resource, bring solutions to the table and listen to a broad range of views by all stakeholders.”

As I wandered through the ballroom stocked with refreshments, shiny videos and diagrams promoted the potential of “circularity,” a marketing term that’s often focused on recycling. Independent research shows pollution will skyrocket if companies don’t curb production, but the industry has, for decades, shifted attention from that with false promises about waste management.

“The work we do is not the whole solution,” the alliance later told me in an email.

But I could easily see someone leaving the exhibit with that impression.

The finer points of plastic science, from its toxic manufacturing process to the limits of recycling, are highly technical and complex.

While countries like the United States could afford to fly in multiple experts to inform government delegates, other countries could not.

Later that day, I met Bethanie Carney Almroth, an ecotoxicologist from Sweden’s University of Gothenburg, who was among 60 independent, volunteer researchers who had traveled to Canada in hopes of bridging that gap in access to expertise.

As part of the Scientists’ Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty, they shared fact sheets and peer-reviewed studies and made themselves available for questions. Carney Almroth said ensuring the integrity of the group was vital. Members must have a proven track record of researching plastic pollution and follow a conflict-of-interest policy to prevent bias.

“The human right to science,” she said, “includes the right to transparency.”

Day 3: “No Such Thing As Conflict Of Interest”

For the first two of these conferences, the INC Secretariat didn’t include the participants’ affiliations when they released the list of people who had registered for the event, making it hard to tell who worked for the industry. That has since changed, making it easier for advocacy groups to scour lists for fossil fuel and chemical company affiliations.

After the UN released the roster of the 4,000 people who had registered for Ottawa this year, the Center for International Environmental Law released its analysis of industry attendees. It found about 200 people with observer-level badges.

What’s more, the group said, 16 industry representatives had received the red badges usually reserved for government delegates. They were invited onto official delegations by China, the Dominican Republic, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Malaysia, Thailand, Turkey and Uganda. I later learned an Indonesian delegate was listed as part of its Ministry of Industry; LinkedIn revealed him to be a director at a petrochemical firm.

I reached out to officials from all 10 countries. Most did not respond.

(The United States wasn’t on the list. “As a matter of policy, the United States does not include any industry or civil society representatives in our official delegation,” said a spokesperson from the State Department.)

There is “no such thing as conflict of interest in International negotiations,” the executive director of the Uganda National Environment Management Authority, Barirega Akankwasah, told me in a WhatsApp message. It’s “a matter of country positions and not individual positions,” he said, adding that the conference was “open and transparent” and stakeholders were “all welcome to participate.”

An official from the Dominican Republic, Claudia Taboada, told me that environmental groups and academic scientists had been consulted before the Ottawa conference and that the two industry reps on the country’s eight-member delegation had restricted privileges. They were barred from internal meetings where observers weren’t allowed, she said, and they couldn’t negotiate on behalf of the government.

Those industry reps weren’t trying to influence the government’s position, added Taboada, who is director for science, technology and environment at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

I found that hard to believe. Who would sit through days of bureaucratic meetings just to observe?

A red-striped badge provides tangible benefits, multiple attendees told me, like access to email lists and WhatsApp chats that are closed to observers. A university scientist who’s part of Fiji’s official delegation, Rufino Varea, said it’s easier to talk to official delegates from other countries when you have that badge. It shows only a person’s name and country, making it impossible to tell at a glance whether someone works for the government or for private interests.

A press release issued that day showed a counter-analysis of the entire list of attendees from the International Council of Chemical Associations, which said that industry observers were vastly outnumbered by more than 2,000 members from nongovernmental organizations like environmental advocacy groups.

Many of these groups are “incredibly well funded” and supported by billionaires, said a subsequent email from the American Chemistry Council, the country’s largest plastics lobby. It noted that at least eight countries had NGO representatives on their official delegations.

Day 4: Fighting For Attention

For every NGO with millions in the bank, there were others whose members couldn’t afford the trip to Ottawa. Many had to compete for limited travel funds from sources like the UN or larger advocacy groups.

I sat down with John Chweya, a friendly man in a leather jacket who makes a living as a waste picker in Kenya. A single salad at the conference cost more than a day’s pay.

As president of the Waste Pickers Association of Kenya, he wanted delegates to understand how plastic impacts the millions around the world who collect garbage and sort the recyclables they can sell in places without formal waste disposal. Toxic fumes from plastic burning in landfills make his fellow workers sick, he told me. They wake up with swollen necks, joints that don’t work and mysterious tumors. Chweya wants the world to make less plastic; he came to Ottawa to fight for protective gear and health care.

The specificity of his story brought home how the experiences of front-line communities could inform the understanding of the plastics crisis.

Others like Chweya tried to give voice to huge portions of the world’s populations that are suffering from every step in the plastic life cycle: residents of Indigenous communities and Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” breathing dangerous plant emissions; Pacific Islanders seeing their coral reefs entangled in abandoned fishing nets; activists from lower-income countries that are swimming in Americans’ discarded plastic.

I watched them trying to grab the attention of government officials with handwritten posters, events in cramped rooms and limited speaking slots during the plenary.

None of it matched the flash of the billboards I could not seem to avoid, which heralded their own impending health emergency.

These plastics save lives, one decreed, featuring a girl in a hospital bed, wearing an oxygen mask.

Negotiators couldn’t even agree on setting voluntary reductions for plastic production, I thought. Nobody was proposing to eliminate enough plastic to cause hospital shortages.

Chweya called the prevalent ads “traitorous.”

Day 5: The UN Isn’t Powerless

UN officials had warned against the inequities playing out in Ottawa.

In November 2022, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement during the first conference to negotiate the treaty, held in Uruguay.

Even though they weren’t hosting it, human rights officials had advice on how to proceed. “The plastic industry has disproportionate power and influence over policy relative to the general public,” they wrote. “Clear boundaries on conflict of interest should be established … drawing from existing good practices under international law.”

They recommended policies similar to those adopted by the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a separate UN treaty. Government representatives meet every two years to evaluate results. Recognizing that the tobacco industry’s presence was fundamentally incompatible with protecting public health, the countries agreed to virtually ban Big Tobacco from those meetings.

“It is irresponsible and inaccurate to liken plastics to tobacco,” the American Chemistry Council said in a statement in response to my questions about this comparison. “Unlike the tobacco industry, the plastics industry is playing a vital role in helping meet the UN’s sustainability goals by contributing to food safety, healthcare, renewable energy, telecommunications, clean drinking water, and much more. …

“Keeping plastic producers out means a less informed treaty,” the council said. “We are essential and constructive stakeholders in the global effort to prevent plastic pollution.”

Short of barring the plastics industry, many have wondered why the UN can’t start with smaller steps, like giving industry observers a different kind of badge.

The fossil fuel companies “that are manufacturing plastics” are “not coming to these negotiations with solutions,” Baskut Tuncak, a former UN special rapporteur for human rights and toxics, told me. They’re here “to throw a wrench in the process, or two, or three.”

When I asked if it intended to introduce conflict-of-interest controls, the INC Secretariat said it couldn’t impose rules unilaterally. Governments would have to decide for themselves.

Some U.S. and European politicians have requested such reforms. Negotiators should consider measures “to protect against undue influence of corporate actors with proven vested interests that contradict the goals of the global plastics treaty,” said a letter last month sent to President Joe Biden and the secretary-general of the United Nations.

It was signed by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who’s often criticized the fossil fuel industry’s influence on public policy, along with 11 other members of Congress and a member of the European Parliament. Industry reps should be required to disclose lobbying records and campaign contributions, the letter suggested.

The UN isn’t powerless, said Tuncak and Ana Paula Souza, a UN human rights officer I met on my last day in Ottawa. There’s more the institution could do to raise the profile of the issue, they said. Souza said the UN could also increase funding to allow more of those most affected by plastic pollution to attend these meetings.

Looking Ahead

The Ottawa conference ended with limited progress. Negotiators have a long way to go to reach a final draft at the last scheduled conference this November in Busan, South Korea. Smaller groups of delegates will meet before then; it’s unclear how many observers will be able to attend.

It’s tempting to feel pessimistic. This could easily end up like the UN climate treaty — anemic, voluntary and dragging on forever.

And it’s not like a conflict-of-interest policy would magically solve everything. Countries with powerful plastics lobbies, including the United States, can still advocate for corporate interests.

But it’s worth stepping back to recognize the magnitude of what’s happening.

Nearly every government on Earth signed up for days of painstaking sessions on plastic as a global threat — even places confronting existential crises, like Haiti, Palestine, Sudan and Ukraine. The world recognizes the importance of figuring this out. And despite all the industry influence, capping plastic production remains a possibility.

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