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Global Plastics Treaty – A Student's Perspective

Who am I? 

Hi everyone! My name is Audrey Gregg. I am currently a co-president of Cal Poly SLO Surfrider Foundation Club. I am a third year student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo University, studying Recreation, Parks and Tourism Administration with a focus on Environmental Studies. 

My connection to Surfrider

I have been involved with Surfrider since my freshman year of college and appreciate being involved with such a special community that truly cares about the environment and each other. (Shout-out to my co-president, Kelsey Bryne and my core team, aka my Surfrider family!)

 Before taking on my co-president role in the club, I was the Rise Above Plastics lead. This role introduced me to the world of single use plastics in our community of San Luis Obispo. But never did I imagine it would lead me to observing international negotiations on a plastics pollution policy. 

The Surfrider Foundation gave me the opportunity to be their student representative at INC-4, otherwise known as the fourth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme. Immediately, I jumped on the opportunity, extremely excited to see this foundation on a larger scale and a historical international policy event unfold. 

The INC-4 experience
Preparing for INC4 was challenging because nothing could have prepared me for delegates from over 160 countries meeting in one space, trying to develop a legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution. I thought being a college student was confusing! Man, did I receive some perspective on this trip, and I’m so grateful for it. 

Put in simple terms, plastics are poisoning our planet. As a college student, I easily get caught up in my own life and daily tasks, and it is easy to forget the rest of the world is suffering on the front lines from a major crisis. Plastics are everywhere: in the air we breathe, the soils in which we grow our food, our water, our clothes, and now our bodies.  

Left, "Credit card cookies" show how we consume a credit card worth of plastics every week!

Everyone suffers from plastics to a varying degree. And action must be taken to stop further harm to both human health and the environment. Each day I was met with new perspectives, lessons, friends, affiliates and key takeaways. 

April 23, Day 1 at INC-4
Day 1 was filled with excitement, diving headfirst into the unknown and the Canadian cold. The morning started with delegates, lobbyists, and representatives from all over the world meeting at the Shaw Centre in Ottawa for the kickoff plenary. Here, delegates opened the room with opening statements, thanking Ottawa for hosting, and eager for the continuation from INC-3.

To preface, there have been three previous sessions of INCs since 2022. Each year has built off of the last, with more and more progression towards a legally binding agreement with an emphasis that the world is on a time crunch. 

On Tuesday, I learned that the countries were trying to come to a consensus, or making sure everyone is in agreement; however, this is very hard to achieve. They debated consensus versus majority vote at INC-3 in Paris and did not come to agreement, so they left it for a later date to figure it out, that later date being now. The big oil- and plastic-producing countries, such as Russia and Saudi Arabia, want a treaty by consensus, which would result in the weakest treaty possible, so they can continue to run their oil and plastics operations and profit.   

On Day 1, I also enjoyed learning more about the polystyrene foam issue in British Columbia’s West Coast, one of Surfrider Canada’s biggest battles. I had the honor of meeting and working with two of Surfrider Canada’s leaders, Lilly Woodbury and Lucas Harris.  

Surfrider Canada held a booth at the Plastic Actions Zone at the National Arts Centre, across the street from the Shaw Centre. This is where side events and a handful of plastic art installations were on display. Surfrider Canada’s booth was incredibly interactive, with a Lego display that showed what aquatic environments would look like if both polystyrene (fancy word for Styrofoam) was not used in docks, marinas and aquaculture infrastructure. Here they also unveiled their “Smoked Tuna”, which was a great segway to address the cigarette pollution issue in both the streets of Ottawa and their biomagnification abilities in the ocean. 

Having the opportunity to booth for Surfrider, on an elevated level to representatives from all over the world, and not just college students was a great experience. 

April 24, Day 2 
On Day 2, I began to attend the side events of INC-4, which were incredibly educational and one of my favorite parts of the conference. The first event I attended was titled "Plastic Pollution on the Frontlines: Stories from Turtle Island," where indigenous people from all over British Columbia spoke on a panel about their communities struggles from plastic pollution. Hearing from these panelists was heartbreaking, as they are receiving the worst effects living on the frontlines. 

Biggest shock 
Learning about Aamjiwnaang First Nation, who reside in an area known as "Chemical Valley" located next to Ontario. Janelle Nahmabin, councilor of Aamjiwnaang First Nation shared how her people are getting sick and dying from plastic pollution. Benzene, a carcinogenic gas, constantly pollutes the air in Chemical Valley, causing dizziness, shortness of breath, a bad taste and ultimately, cancer. These strains of cancer are extremely rare in other parts of the world, and are very resistant to treatment.

Long term studies on these cases are never finished because all the participants keep dying. Indigenous communities are also suffering from lack of fish, a major source of food and lifestyle, polluted waters, endangered animals filled with microplastics, and overall lack of support, respect and recognition from governmental officials. 

Ways to Support from the Panelists 
Check out the non-profit Society of Native Nations. Donate and educate yourself. 

Vote! And vote for the representatives who care about these matters. Indigenous communities desperately need more representation. 

Recognize the land in everything you do: Don’t just give a land acknowledgement and be satisfied with what you did. 

Power is not given, it’s taken → take back your power from the industries!

April 25, Day 3 
On Day 3, I attended a side event titled "Youth Advocacy for Ocean Justice to End Plastic Pollution." This panel was led by youth environmental activists from all over the world. Each panelist brought much passion to the stage, advocating for more youth representation within the INC, because our voices need to be heard. Here, I saw firsthand the importance of supporting the future generations of activists, as they are spry, and eager to bring their ideas to the table. I felt a sense of comradery with this group, as we are all working towards the same goal.

Key Takeaway 
There are people and resources out there who want to support the next generation of environmental activists. In order to continue this environmental crisis battle, we must work in unity and support each other along the way. Some youth programs and resources I learned about include: 

Check them out! 

April 26, Day 4 
On Day 4, I joined the Youth Coalition to meet with two representatives of the United States Delegates, Marisel Trespalacios from the U.S. Department of Commerce, and So-Jung Youn from the Office of Environmental Quality. The questions and topics bounced around from plastic production, waste management, incorporating youth input and indigenous knowledge, and the possibility of implementing a time-bound instrument. My main takeaway from meeting with Marysel and So-Jung was finding comfort in the fact that U.S. representatives care about the youths' voices and want to hear what we have to say. In an issue that seems so beyond us, it is reassuring to know that progress is being made and that we as the younger generation have a seat at the table. 

In the afternoon, I attended two side events centered around plastics in agriculture that contrasted each other. The first event was led by representatives of plastic packaging manufacturers for agricultural purposes and the second event, with panelists from the Scientist Coalition.

Agriculture, an extremely complex industry, is also one of the biggest contributors to climate change. The implementation of plastics has forever changed the world of agriculture. However, using plastics has become so convenient, that we began to utilize them when it wasn’t necessary. Panelists from plastic manufacturing companies told the audience that plastics are necessary to reduce chemicals and fertilizer use, ensure water retention, prevent rot, start necessary fermentation, and much more. However, it is necessary for the agriculture industry to start moving towards a circular economy with emphasis on proper recycling at the end of plastics life.

It was interesting to see the contrast between the plastic packaging manufacturers, who are trying to produce their plastics sustainably versus the Scientist Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty. Members of the Scientist Coalition were advocating from the human health perspective. They touched on the disturbing facts that plastics are in our soils, in our food, and in us. Our soils are littered with microplastics and are essentially poisoning human health. 

Key Takeaways 
Recycling cannot be the only solution. Plastic production REDUCTION has to be a major solution. 

Some plastic manufacturers want to move towards sustainable production, however all parties in agriculture need to make changes.  

The goal and question moving forward is how can we sustainably use these plastics, only using them when necessary, reducing unnecessary chemicals and recycling as much as possible.  

What I want to bring back to SLO and student level 
Now that I’m back in sunny SLO, I’m excited to share all of this information and more with my friends, peers and club members! I feel so grateful for this experience and knowledge, so I hope to spread this in the most clear way possible. Policy has always been a weak spot in our club's efforts, mainly because no one (in the time I’ve been in CP Surfrider) has expressed the interest to take on such an intimidating realm.

However, after attending INC-4 and asking a lot of questions, I feel a new sense of confidence to explore environmental policy, on a local and global scale. I want to encourage my club members and other youth activists that our voices do harness positive changes and that these communities of like-minded individuals who care about the planet do exist outside of school. 

Call to action/what can we do as students 
As students, we can continue to educate ourselves and therefore spread awareness on ocean advocacy and protection. We can continue to host beach cleanups and record the data because they truly make a difference within policy. We can sign petitions and challenge the systems because our voices are heard. We can test the water quality, ensuring that people feel safe in the waters of an ever changing world. We can demand change because changes need to be made. And most importantly, we can continue to find community with those who want to make a difference to protect and enjoy our world.  

The biggest thank you to the Surfrider Foundation for making this experience possible for me. To Carolyn, Jen, Lilly and Lucas – you are all amazing activists, role models and friends and I feel so lucky to have experienced INC-4 with you all. I am stoked to say my Surfrider family has grown. Here’s to an amazing organization and to the agreement of a legally binding plastic pollution policy!

Answers for Carolyn: 
Why is it important for youth voices to be represented at INC4? 
It is important for youth voices to be represented at INC4 because they are simply the next generation to tackle the complicated series of issues that challenge INC4 and the plastic crisis. The youths' voices must be acknowledged because they pose questions and ideas that the older generations may not be concerned with or prioritized. 
How has your country been impacted by plastic pollution? 
I am an American, specifically from California. I’d say the United States has been successful in concealing the realities of plastic pollution from their citizens. The US is the largest plastic producer in the world, and yet they practice “out of sight, out of mind” by shipping their plastics to be recycled across the globe, when only a fraction gets recycled or even makes it to the destination. 
I think the US has suffered from plastic pollution from the mass amounts of litter that ends up in waterways, and ultimately the ocean. The US is made up of a consumerist society, so plastics are everywhere; in our clothes, soils, food, and ultimately, us. I think US citizens are starting to see the effects of plastics as an endocrine disruptor as microplastics are being found in everything. 
What is your advice or message to other young activists? 
My advice to other young activists is to try to find a like-minded community who care about the movements you are passionate about. Other activists are out there, wanting to collaborate and make a difference. It is much easier and more enjoyable to work towards a greener world when you have friends to do it with and support each other along the way.