Plastic pollution is becoming a global crisis. According to the UN Environment Program (UNEP) the amount of plastic waste is projected to rise to 23-37 million tons per year by 2040. In March 2022, the UN Environment Assembly adopted a resolution to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution. They requested the UNEP to convene an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) on plastic pollution to address the full life cycle of plastic.

Last month, negotiators and interested parties met in Ottawa for the INC-4 to discuss progress on a plastics treaty. A delegation of plastics and microplastics experts from the Water Institute at the University of Waterloo participated with special accreditation from the UNEP. Professor Elisabeth Prince, a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering was part of that delegation.

“We had the opportunity to share our expertise in the emerging technologies for mitigating the plastic waste crisis with key decision-makers,” says Prince.

Prince has expertise in synthetic polymer chemistry and polymer science. The delegation from the Water Institute hoped to lend their scientific knowledge to ensure the treaty was well-informed by science as there were many parties with vastly different interests and motivations throughout the negotiation.

The guiding agreement will likely lead to new policies in different countries about plastics production which will influence the direction the industries move in as they adapt to new regulations to make them more sustainable. It will inform scientists about what innovation needs to happen to meet new regulations.

“I think understanding what regulations are coming down the pipeline will provide motivations for improving circularity, and help scientists examine how we make plastics more biodegradable,” says Prince.

Many groups came away from the negotiations feeling that the INC did not sufficiently advance the plastic treaty. Experts that were at the conference, including Prince, remain committed to advancing sustainability through their research.