Ending Plastic Pollution is a Feminist priority!

Our policy advocacy at the INC4 negotiations in Ottawa

1 May 2024, Ottawa 

Keywords: Plastics, Pollution, Women, Gender, Health, INC, UNEP, Fossil Fuels, Chemicals, Toxic, PPP, Forever Chemicals, Endocrine Disruptors, Microplastics 

The 4th round of negotiations to agree on a global treaty to ‘end plastic pollution’ were held in Ottawa Canada, including the participation of WECF and many of our partners from Asia, Africa, Latin-America and Europe. As civil society organisations we have a seat at the table, and organise through global coalitions such as International Pollution Elimination Network (IPEN), Break Free from Plastics (BFFP) and the Women’s Major Group (WMG) at UNEP. 

From UNEA resolution to Global Legally Binding Treaty 

At the 5th United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) the governments of the world decided (UNEA resolution 5.14) that plastic pollution is a global threat and needs a global answer, a treaty to ‘end plastic pollution’. The governments have set a 3-year period for negotiating this new global treaty, a bit similar to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. From 22-30 of April the 4th round of negotiations took place in Ottawa, Canada, coordinated by the International Negotiations Committee (INC) secretariat, headed by Ms. Jyoti Mathur-Filipp, with representatives of almost all 194 UN Member States as well as over 2000 observers including women-led and ecofeminist organisations.   

Why are the plastic negotiations important? 

Plastics on the market are to about 99% made from oil (fossil fuels) mixed with harmful chemicals as additives. The fossil fuel industry foresees a four-fold increase in plastic production in the coming decades. The entire life cycle of plastics is one big source of hazardous pollution, from fossil fuel extraction, refining, polymer production, chemical additives, through the usage of plastics – leaching toxic chemicals into our water, food and bodies – to the end, where plastic waste pollutes our oceans and environment with microplastics and chemicals. Our international director Sascha Gabizon participated in the negotiations and spoke up for a ‘cap’ on virgin plastic production, referred to as PPP (plastic polymer production), and banning toxic chemicals in plastics. (see video). 

Women’s Major Group at UNEP coordinate to share our concerns and priorities at INC4 including through daily colour campaign messages (source: WECF)

Children’s first breath is full of microplastics 

As humans we are part of the environmental ecosystem, if the environment is polluted with plastics, so are we. Recent research shows that the spit from new born children contain microplastics, and these microplastics contain toxic chemicals; they are born pre-polluted. Microplastics are found in human blood and placentas (Guardian 2024) and migrate into our brains. The hazardous chemicals used in plastics, such as Bisphenol-A, Pthtalates and Brominated Flameretardants are linked to diseases that are often irreversible such as breast cancer and infertility. As Women’s Major Group representatives we spoke up on the great concerns we have of the health impacts from plastic pollution, and advocated to strengthen the text of the negotiations on this point, including Yuyun Ismawati (see video) and Dalia Marquez (see video) on behalf of the Women’s groups. See WECF’s publication on plastics here.

Yuyun Ismawati of WECF partner ‘Nexus3 Foundation’ Indonesia, speaking on behalf of the Women’s Major Group to government delegates on the health impacts on women and children (source: WECF)

Corporate capture at the plastic negotiations

The petro-chemical industry is putting in lots of resources to weaken the treaty, and at INC4 there were more plastic-industry lobbyists participating, then government negotiators from the European Union, which had the largest government delegation (see report CIEL). This is clearly a “conflict of interest”, plastic lobbyists should not be at the table! Not only did the petrochemical industry sent its lobbyists, it also flooded the city of Ottawa with a pro-plastic propaganda campaign on billboards, spreading fake news on the so-called health benefits of plastics. In response, the World Health Organisation (WHO) had to inform governments that the pro-plastic campaign information was incorrect, and that the health sector should certainly not be excluded from the treaty. Health organisations published an open letter for government negotiators signed by 6 million health professionals, see Health Care Without Harm statement here. 

There are no ‘end-of-pipe’ solutions, stop plastic pollution at source 

As we had already reminded governments during UNEA6, that toxic chemicals in plastics should not be continuously ‘recycled’, instead they should be phased out entirely, see IPEN’s press statement . Our partner Dorothee Adhiambo and Griffins Ochieng of CEJAD gave evidence of how recycled plastics have even higher levels of toxic chemicals, from their laboratory tests of toys and women’s beauty projects (made from recycled plastics) that they carried out in Kenya (see link).  

Women entrepreneurs leading the way to plastic-free solutions 

We engaged in discussions with government negotiators on why the treaty should promote women’s economic alternatives to plastics, amongst others with the Minister of Environment of Rwanda. Rwanda is one of the countries’ leading the ‘high ambition’ coalition at the plastic negotiations, and proposed text to reduce virgin plastic production at source. Rwanda was the first African country to completely ban plastic bags, and since then, the production of non-plastic alternatives are an economic sector from which women profit in particular (see tweet). 

Another great example is entrepreneur Anita Shah from ‘Green Stem’ Kenya – whom you might have seen in our documentary Tackling Toxics – who produces thousands of alternatives to single-use plastic food packaging and utensils. 

Meeting with the Minister of environment of Rwanda (2nd from left) and WMG delegates, and WECF partners Priscilla Achapka, WEP Nigeria (left) and Semia Gharbi (WEP Tunisia) symbolizing joint action (source: WECF)

Engaging with Women Government Delegates   

WECF jointly with the Women’s Major Group at UNEP, with IPEN, HEJ-Support and Exit-Plastik, took the initiative to organise a lunch meeting for Women Delegates only. This was a great opportunity to discuss informally about our concerns on the health impacts on women and children from plastic pollution, and why we urge negotiators to create a legally-binding treaty that will keep toxic chemicals out of the plastic-value-chain, and to limit virgin plastic pollution at source. We met in different language groups with French, Spanish and Arab speakers. The WMG shared their position statement with delegates. And 16-year-old youth delegate Nina from Indonesia gave us a pep-talk saying she counts on the delegates to protect young and future generations (see video). Nindhita Proboretno of WECF partner ‘Nexus3 Foundation’, Indonesia, also share her worries that women working in so-called ‘plastic recycling’ plants, are exposed unknowingly and unwillingly to high levels of toxic chemicals, see video. In the following hours of negotiations text was proposed by some member states to ensure the treaty will be implemented in a gender-responsive manner including through Gender Action Plans. At the same time many anti-gender governments are trying to get deletions, so greater efforts are needed in the intersessional period towards INC5 in Busan in November 2024. 

Women Delegate Lunch organised by WECF and allies at INC4 (Photo: IPEN)

You can join and support our work for a plastic-pollution-free future by joining our ecofeminist network and the Women’s Major Group at UNEP.