Negotiations begin for a global treaty on plastic pollution

More than 2,000 experts will wrap up a week of plastic pollution negotiations Friday afternoon in one of the largest global gatherings ever to address what even plastics industry leaders are calling a crisis.

It was the first meeting of a United Nations committee set up to draft what should be a landmark treaty to end plastic pollution globally.

“If we look at 30 years from now, we will have four times as much plastic. We are in an extremely unfortunate situation. So you need to have a global approach to this,” said Björn Beeler, who was at the meeting as international coordinator for the International Pollutants Elimination Network, or IPEN.

Whole beaches on what were once pristine islands are now littered with trash. Examination of a random handful of sand in many places reveals bits of plastic.

The United Nations Environment Program held its Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee meeting in a city known for its beaches, Punta del Este, Uruguay, from Monday to Friday.

Delegates from more than 160 countries, plastic industry representatives, environmentalists, scientists, waste collectors, tribal leaders and others affected by pollution attended in person or virtually. The waste collectors are demanding recognition of their work and a just transition to fairly paid, healthy and sustainable jobs.

Even in this first of five meetings planned over the next two years, the factions came under fire. Some countries have pressed for top-down global mandates, some for national solutions, and some for both. If a deal is eventually adopted, it would be the first global legally binding treaty to fight plastic pollution.

Leading the industry’s view was the American Chemistry Council, a trade association for chemical companies. Joshua Baca, vice president of the plastics division, said the companies want to work with governments on the issue because they too are frustrated with the problem. But he said they will not support production restrictions, as some countries want.

“The challenge is very simple. It is working to ensure that used plastic never enters the environment,” Baca said. “A top-down approach that places a cap or ban on production does nothing to address the challenges we face from the from the point of view of waste management”.

The United States, a major plastic-producing country, wants national action plans to end plastic pollution so governments can prioritize the most important sources and types of plastic pollution.

Most plastic is made from fossil fuels. Other plastic and oil and gas producing countries have also called for individual nations to be held responsible. The Chinese delegate said it would be difficult to effectively control global plastic pollution with one or even more universal approaches.

The Saudi Arabian delegate also said that each country should determine its own plan of action, with no standardization or harmonization between them. Plastics play a vital role in sustainable development, said the delegate, so the treaty should recognize the importance of continuing plastic production while addressing the root cause of the pollution, which he identified as poor waste management.

Some referred to these countries as the “low ambition” group. Andrés Del Castillo, a senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law, said that while national plans are important, they shouldn’t be the backbone of the treaty because that’s the system — or lack of one — that the world already has.

“We see no reason to meet five times with experts from around the world to discuss voluntary actions, when specific control measures are needed that can aim to reduce, then eliminate plastic pollution around the world,” he said after attending the discussions on Thursday: “It’s a cross-border problem”.

The eponymous “high ambition coalition” of countries wants to end plastic pollution by 2040, using an ambitious and effective legally binding international instrument. They are led by Norway and Rwanda.

The Norwegian delegate to the meeting said that the production and use of plastics must be curbed and that the first priority should be to identify which plastic products, polymers and chemical additives would bring the fastest benefits if phased out.

African nations, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru and others have also called for a comprehensive approach, arguing that voluntary and fragmented national approaches will not address the extent of plastic pollution. Small island countries that depend on the ocean for food and livelihoods said they are being overwhelmed by the plastic waste washing up on their shores. Developing countries have said they need financial support to fight plastic pollution.

Australia, the UK and Brazil have said international obligations should complement national action.

Tadesse Amera, an environmental scientist, said the treaty should address not only waste but also the environmental health issues posed by chemicals in plastics as products are used, recycled, discarded or burned as waste. Amera is the director of Pesticide Action Nexus Association Ethiopia and co-chair of IPEN.

“It’s not a waste management issue,” he said. “It’s a chemical problem and a health problem, human health and also biodiversity.”

People from communities affected by the industry traveled to the meeting to ensure their voices were considered in the treaty talks. That group included Frankie Orona, executive director of the Society of Native Nations in Texas.

“There is a lack of inclusion from those directly negatively impacted by this industry. And they need to be at the table,” she said. “Many times they have solutions.”

Orona said talks seem focused, so far, on plastic reduction, when governments should aim higher.

“We have to get rid of plastic completely,” he said.

The next meeting is scheduled for spring.

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