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INC-4: Growing menace of industry influence on plastic pollution

Olamide | Image: CAPPA

‘with about 2.5 million tonnes of plastic waste annually, the World Economic Forum (WEC)’s Global Plastic Action Partnership ranks Nigeria ninth globally among countries with the highest contributions to plastic pollution’

By Ogunlade Olamide

Plastic waste pollution is a growing environmental menace that is affecting lives and livelihoods across the world.

But the latest efforts to combat the problem through a global plastics treaty have exposed a worrying trend: the plastic industry’s growing negative influence on and its shunning of established science.

The fossil fuel and chemical industries – source of the plastic industry – showed their intent between April 23 and 29 at the Shaw Centre in Ottawa, Canada, during the fourth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-4) to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment.

Just like it did during INC-3 in Nairobi, Kenya last year, the industry deployed several measures – including registering an unprecedented number of lobbyists – to hijack the negotiation processes at INC-4 and tone down established narratives.

Last year, an analysis by the Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL) disclosed that 143 fossil fuel and chemical industry lobbyists registered to attend INC-3, gaining access to the negotiations at a time when talks on a global plastics treaty were entering a critical phase.

Also read: ERA/FoEN raises alarm over fresh oil pollution in Ekuraba creek

The 143 fossil fuel and chemical company lobbyists at INC-3 outnumbered the 70 smallest Member-states delegations at the negotiations.

This year, the industry registered an unprecedented 196 lobbyists, representing about 37 per cent of the total attendees at INC-4, and as was to be expected, the lobbyists affirmed their determination to advance self-serving interests and stall positions that embrace the otherwise.

These lobbyists not only vehemently resisted and shut down proceedings that exposed their fallacies, they also influenced the plastic policies of parties and states that dared to question their stance.

Their presence stalled the needed progress as they effectively reduced the event to a marketplace. 

Ninety-nine per cent of plastics are derived from fossil fuels. Fossil fuels account for over 75 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, meaning fossil fuel-generated plastics are directly tied to increases in greenhouse gas emissions annually. Fossil fuels disguised as plastics can be found everywhere in our lives.

It is natural to expect the industry to leverage such a gathering to expand its coverage and deepen its hold on market share in emerging and vulnerable states. For them, INC-4 is nothing but interest and profits at the expense of human and animal survival, eco-sustainability, and societal well-being.

The industry is not unaware of the significance of the outcomes of INC-4, particularly in advancing treaty texts that will be adopted at the final scheduled session (INC-5) in Busan, Republic of Korea later in the year, hence its unapologetic resolve to monopolise the process.

To this end, the industry has been behind several false claims to downplay the negative consequences of plastic pollution. One such claim is that the consequences of micro- and nano-plastics, including growth inhibition, increased oxidative stress, and decreased feeding behaviour, among others, are not backed with facts. But this has been debunked as there are now over 20,000 peer-reviewed scientific publications on micro- and nano-plastics according to the Web of Science database.

This database established that plastic products release dangerous micro- and nanoparticles at all stages of the plastics life cycle, including production, normal and intended use, waste management, and recycling, and that these microplastics can alter the natural environment both locally and on a global scale.

Similarly, the industry’s claim that plastics’ effects on the marine environment are insignificant and suffer a dearth of evidence has also been proven to be untrue; scientific evidence has confirmed that microplastics affect terrestrial ecosystems and that human bodies are not protected from these exposures.

According to recent studies published on ScienceDirect and thelancet.com, exposed humans show the presence of plastics in 100 per cent of blood samples, 80 per cent of saphenous vein samples, 84 per cent of lung tissues, all liver and colon samples, 33- 66 per cent of placentas, and 77 per cent of breast milk samples.

Parkinson’s disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and respiratory infections are a few of the associated consequences of plastic exposure still under the discovery of science.

Back home, with about 2.5 million tonnes of plastic waste annually, the World Economic Forum (WEC)’s Global Plastic Action Partnership ranks Nigeria ninth globally among countries with the highest contributions to plastic pollution.

Unfortunately, over 88 per cent of the plastic waste generated in the country is not recycled.

Instead, much of it ends up in water bodies – rivers, lakes, drains, lagoons and the ocean.

In just Lagos State alone, plastics account for 15 per cent of the total generated waste.

According to experts, the situation in Nigeria may get worse with the expected rise in the population to about 401 million in 2050.

Furthermore, the production of plastic is growing. Dangote Refinery, the largest petrochemical refinery in Africa, has started operations in Nigeria and apart from refining fuel, will also produce plastic products.

As a countermeasure against the plastic industry’s tactics, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) can borrow from Article 5.3 of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) which frowns on conflicts of interest.

These express guides in the WHO FCTC are templates that can be adopted to prevent the industry’s further capture of the negotiation space.

Also, there is a need to close the gaps in prevailing national and sub-national policies that support the inclusion of corporate interests.

Furthermore, fence-line communities suffering the impacts of plastic pollution from extraction of raw natural resources to manufacturing of products, recycling, and handling of wastes deserve more seats in the room and more platforms for expression.

As the world waits for the progressive phase-out of these problematic and avoidable plastics, clear boundaries for corporations in the decision-making process will prevent potential mix-ups of financial and political interests with legitimate interests or biases. 

In the same vein, policy audits and oversight procedures must be incorporated before and during negotiation processes to address imbalances, corporate overlay, poor representation, and undue considerations for corporate benefits and privileged interests.

.Olamide, the Climate Change Programme Manager at Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA), writes from Lagos.

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