Tough negotiations likely on a UN treaty to tackle plastic pollution
Scientists send an open letter to negotiators asking them to put health at the heart of the talks
As the world’s nations enter another round of talks this week on creating the first treaty to contain plastic pollution, officials are bracing for tough negotiations over whether to limit plastic production or focus only on the management of waste.
Working with a “zero draft” document that lists policy options and actions to consider, national delegates at the week of talks in Nairobi, Kenya, will debate which options to include in what will be a legally binding treaty by end-2024, said officials involved in the negotiations.
“We are at a pivotal moment in this process,” said David Azoulay, a managing attorney of the Centre for International Environmental Law who is an observer at the negotiations.
The world produces about 400-million tonnes of plastic waste a year with less than 10% of it recycled, according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). This plastic chokes landfills and pollutes oceans. The quantity produced is set to surge in the coming decade as oil groups, which often also produce plastics, look to new sources of revenue amid the energy transition away from fossil fuels.
Altogether, 98% of single-use plastic, such as bottles or packaging, comes from fossil fuels, according to the UNEP.
The EU and dozens of countries, including Japan, Canada and Kenya, have called for a strong treaty with “binding provisions” for reducing the production and use of virgin plastic polymers derived from petrochemicals, and for eliminating or restricting problematic plastics, such as PVC and others containing toxic ingredients.
That position is opposed by the plastic industry and by oil and petrochemical exporters such as Saudi Arabia, who want to see plastic use continue. They argue that the treaty should focus on recycling and reusing plastics, sometimes referred to in the talks as “circularity” in plastics supply.
In a submission before this week’s negotiations, Saudi Arabia said the root cause of plastic pollution is “inefficient management of waste”.
The US, which initially wanted a treaty made up of national plans to control plastics, revised its stance in recent months. It now says that the treaty should still be based on national plans, but those plans should reflect globally agreed goals to reduce plastic pollution that are “meaningful and feasible”, said a US state department spokesperson.
The International Council of Chemical Associations wants the treaty to include measures “that accelerate a circular economy for plastics”, said council spokesperson Matthew Kastner.
“The plastics agreement should be focused on ending plastic pollution, not plastic production,” said Kastner.
For oil, gas and petrochemical producers and exporters, a strong treaty is a liability that could curb the sale of fossil fuels, said Bjorn Beeler, international co-ordinator of the International Pollutants Elimination Network.
Saudi Arabia and other producers are “pushing a ‘bottom-up’ approach that makes individual countries responsible for the cleanup, health and environmental costs of plastics and chemicals while leaving the fossil fuels and plastics industries off the hook”, said Beeler.
Saudi Arabia launched a coalition on Saturday with countries such as Russia, Iran, Cuba, China and Bahrain, called the Global Coalition for Plastics Sustainability, that will push for the treaty to focus on controlling waste rather than production.
Countries will also be debating whether the treaty should set transparency standards for chemical use in plastics production.
But before they can work on the substantive points, delegates will need to resolve procedural objections that slowed the talks in June when Saudi Arabia said decisions should be adopted by consensus rather than by a majority. A consensus would allow one country to block the ability to make decisions to advance development of the treaty. Most other countries did not support the intervention.
The Saudi delegation did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Environmental groups said they hope this week’s talks can focus on the treaty’s substance, and move beyond the procedural discussions that stall progress.
“We need a radical rethink of the global plastics economy and cannot get bogged down by derailing tactics and false solutions,” said Christina Dixon of the Environmental Investigation Agency.
On Sunday, a group of 20 international scientists sent an open letter to negotiators asking them to put health at the heart of the talks, and aim for a treaty that reduces production volumes of plastics and “mandates proper testing of all chemicals in plastics”.
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