FILE: A man washes waste plastic sheets, collected for recycling, on World Environment Day in Karachi. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro FILE: A man washes waste plastic sheets, collected for recycling, on World Environment Day in Karachi. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro 

UN negotiations on plastics spark hope, deep division among nations

The second round of negotiations for the first international treaty to end plastic pollution ends with a spark of hope but is marred by division among member states.

By Zeus Legaspi

In what was called a “historic day” in March last year, representatives from some 175 United Nations (UN) member states endorsed a resolution at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi to develop an international legally-binding agreement to address plastic pollution by 2024.

Last week, the second round of talks began in Paris to lay the groundwork for this treaty on plastic pollution. UN member states and 2,000 green organizations participated in this meeting which involved the International Negotiating Committee for Plastics.

Delegates, on Friday, agreed to produce an initial draft ahead of their next meeting in Kenya by the end of 2023. Environmental groups welcomed the meetings’ results but cautioned that the petroleum industry and some states may water down the eventual treaty.

Slashing plastic production

Ahead of the talks on 29 May, over 150 civil society groups and scientists from Greenpeace urged the UN to prevent the fossil fuel industry from imposing undue influence on the negotiations.

Most plastics are made from fossil fuels and contain toxic chemicals that make it to the air, water, and soil from their production to the end of their life cycle.

The organization alleged that the petrochemical industry lobbies for recycling and the integration of plastic into a “circular economy” which undermines the global response to plastic pollution.

“The science is clear, we will never end plastic pollution without cutting plastic production,” said Delphine Lévi Alvarès, #BreakFreeFromPlastic Global Petrochemicals Campaign Coordinator.

Louise Edge, Greenpeace UK’s Global Plastics Campaigner said that the treaty’s success depends on “whether governments are bold enough to ensure that the treaty delivers what the science says is needed – a cap and phase down of plastic production.”

Greenpeace’s recent report revealed that the process of recycling, which includes incineration, releases toxic fumes into the air, putting people at risk of cancer, heart disease, and respiratory ailments.

Further, the High Ambition Coalition, a group of 58 countries led by Norway and Rwanda, push for a slash on plastic production altogether and limiting some chemicals used in making plastics.

Over 400 million tons of plastic is produced every year. Half of which are single-use or short-lived products that eventually end up in the world’s oceans. Of these plastics, only about 9% is recycled, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) said.

UN leader Antonio Guterres also recognized the correlation between plastic production and fossil fuels. “The more plastic we produce, the more fossil fuel we burn, and the worse we make the climate crisis,” he said.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said that plastic waste accounted for more than 3% of global emissions in 2019.

Plastic waste granules as shown at an exhibition stall during World Environment Day in India.
Plastic waste granules as shown at an exhibition stall during World Environment Day in India.

Push for ‘circularity’

Despite this, some nations, particularly those with big petroleum industries including the United States, China, and Saudi Arabia, are instead focusing on plastic recycling, and demand country-by-country rules instead of across-the-board limits, said the Associated Press (AP).

Stew Harris, director for global plastics policy at the American Chemistry Council, argued for allowing governments to “use the right tools based on their unique circumstances.” He pushes for circularity – or reusing plastics – as the best path to tackling pollution.

At the end of the meeting on Friday, 2 June, Harris told AP that circularity was “at the forefront of the negotiations”. The nations agreed to forge a draft treaty by November to produce a final version by 2024.

A Greenpeace USA representative said that “It is clear from this week’s negotiations that oil-producing countries and the fossil fuel industry will do everything in their power to weaken the treaty and delay the process.”

“While some substantive discussions have taken place, there is still a huge amount of work ahead of us,” the representative added.

The third round of negotiations for the first international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution will be held from 13 to 17 November in Nairobi, Kenya. 

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05 June 2023, 14:19