More than 2,000 experts wrapped up a week of talks on plastic pollution on Friday, in one of the biggest 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 is supposed to be a landmark treaty to end plastic pollution around the world.
“The world needs this treaty because we produce billions of plastics,” Jyoti Mathur-Filipp, executive secretary of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for Plastics, said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Billions of tons of plastics are produced every year and there is absolutely no way to ensure that this plastic does not end up in the environment.”
Entire beaches on what were once virgin islands are now covered in trash. Examining a random handful of sand in many places reveals bits of plastic.
The United Nations Environment Program held the meeting in a city known for its beaches, Punta del Este, Uruguay, from Monday to Friday.
Delegates from over 150 countries, plastics industry representatives, environmentalists, scientists, waste pickers, tribal leaders and others affected by pollution attended in person or virtually. Waste pickers seek recognition for their work and a just transition to jobs that are fairly paid, healthy and sustainable.
Even at this first meeting of five scheduled over the next two years, the factions have been worked out. Some countries have pushed for top-down global mandates, some for national solutions and some for both. If an agreement is finally adopted, it would be the first legally binding global treaty to combat plastic pollution.
The American Chemistry Council, a trade association for chemical companies, was at the forefront from an industry perspective. Joshua Baca, vice president of the plastics division, said the companies wanted to work with governments on the issue because they were also frustrated with the problem. But he said they would not support production restrictions, as some countries want.
“The challenge is very simple. It works to ensure that used plastics never enter the environment,” Baca said. “A top-down approach that imposes a production cap or ban does nothing to address the challenges we face from a waste management perspective.”
The United States, a leading plastic-producing country, agrees that national plans allow governments to prioritize the most important sources and types of plastic pollution.
Most plastics are made from fossil fuels. Other plastic, oil and gas producing countries have also called for holding individual nations accountable. The delegate from China said it would be difficult to effectively control global plastic pollution with one or even more one-size-fits-all approaches.
The delegate from Saudi Arabia also said that each country should determine its own action plan, without standardization or harmonization between them. Plastic plays a vital role in sustainable development, said the delegate, so the treaty should recognize the importance of continuing plastic production while tackling the root cause of pollution, which he identified such as poor waste management.
Some have called these countries a “low ambition” group. Andrés Del Castillo, senior counsel at the Center for International Environmental Law, said while national plans are important, they should not be the backbone of the treaty because it is the system – or lack of a system – that the world already has.
“We don’t see the point of meeting with experts from around the world five times to discuss voluntary actions, when there are specific control measures that can aim to reduce and then eliminate plastic pollution around the world” , he said after participating in discussions on Thursday. “It’s a cross-border problem.”
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres added a tweet: “Plastics are fossil fuels in another form and pose a serious threat to human rights, climate and biodiversity,” it read.
The so-called “high ambition coalition” of countries wants to end plastic pollution by 2040, using an ambitious and effective international legally binding instrument. They are led by Norway and Rwanda.
Norway’s delegate to the meeting said the production and use of plastic must be curbed and that the first priority should be to identify plastic products, polymers and chemical additives that would bring the fastest benefits. if they were eliminated.
African nations, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru and others have also called for a global approach, arguing that voluntary and fragmented national plans will not solve the scale of plastic pollution. Small island nations that rely on the ocean for food and livelihoods have reported being overwhelmed by plastic waste washing up on their shores. Developing countries have said they need financial support to tackle plastic pollution.
Australia, the UK and Brazil said international obligations should complement national action.
Tadesse Amera, an environmental scientist, said the treaty should address not only waste, but also environmental health issues posed by chemicals in plastics when the products are used, recycled, discarded or burned as waste. Amera is the director of Pesticide Action Nexus Association Ethiopia and co-chair of the International Pollutant Removal Network.
“It’s not a waste management issue,” he said. “It is a chemical question and a question of health, of human health and also of biodiversity.”
People from industry-affected communities came to the meeting to ensure their voices are heard throughout the treaty talks. This included Frankie Orona, executive director of the Society of Native Nations in Texas.
“There is a lack of inclusion from those who are directly impacted negatively by this industry. And they have to be at the table,” he said. “Often they have solutions.”
Orona said the talks seem focused, so far, on reducing plastic, when governments should aim higher.
“We have to completely free ourselves from plastics,” he said.
Mathur-Filipp said for the next meeting she will draft a draft of what a legally binding agreement would look like. Organizers don’t want it to take a decade, she said. The next meeting is scheduled for spring in France.
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