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Delegates working to end global plastics pollution agree to craft a draft treaty

Environmental advocates cautiously welcomed the outcome of five days of U.N. talks in Paris on but expressed concern that the petroleum industry and some governments would water down the eventual deal

UNEA Nairobi
A volunteer of the Plastic Free association, cleans up the "Plastic Beach" of the Volturno, so called for the enormous amount of accumulated waste brought by the flood of the Volturno river.Vincenzo Izzo (LightRocket via Getty Images)

Global negotiators have agreed to craft a draft treaty to end plastic pollution, a preliminary but crucial step toward tackling one of the most lasting sources of human waste. Environmental advocates cautiously welcomed the outcome of five days of U.N. talks in Paris on plastic pollution, but expressed concern that the petroleum industry and some governments would water down the eventual treaty. Most plastic is made from fossil fuels.

Delegates at the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for Plastics agreed Friday evening to produce an initial draft before their next meeting in Kenya in November, participants said. The committee is charged with developing the first international, legally binding treaty on plastic pollution, on land and at sea.

A coalition of “high-ambition” governments led by Norway and Rwanda, along with environmental groups, want to end plastic pollution altogether by 2040 by slashing production and limiting some chemicals used in making plastics.

“Projections suggest that a child born today will see plastic production double by the time they turn 18, but we know that the consequences of increasing plastic production will be disastrous for our health, the planet, and the climate,” said Dr. Tadesse Amera, who led the International Pollutants Elimination Network’s delegation at the talks. “The stakes are high, but we are optimistic by the growing awareness among delegates of the need for global controls.”

Countries with big petroleum industries like the U.S., China and Saudi Arabia are focusing instead on plastic recycling, and want country-by-country rules instead of across-the-board limits.

Stew Harris, senior director for global plastics policy at the American Chemistry Council, argued for allowing each government to “use the right tools based on their unique circumstances.” In a statement to The Associated Press as the talks wrapped up, he said that circularity — or reusing plastics — was “at the forefront of the negotiations as a means to tackle pollution and be more sustainable in producing and consuming plastics. We agree that’s the best path.”

Humanity produces more than 430 million tons of plastic annually, two-thirds of which are short-lived products that soon become waste, filling the ocean and, often, working their way into the human food chain, the U.N. Environment Program said in an April report. Plastic waste produced globally is set to almost triple by 2060, with about half ending up in landfill and under a fifth recycled, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Over 2,000 participants from nearly 200 countries, including governments and observers, took part in this week’s talks. Waste pickers and some advocacy groups said they were initially denied access to the talks. Then debates about rules of procedure — including whether decisions would require consensus or just two-thirds approval — dragged out the proceedings, participants said.

But they ultimately agreed to produce a draft treaty by November, which keeps things on track to produce a final version by the target deadline of late 2024. This week’s talks were the second of five rounds of meetings due to take place to complete the negotiations.

“Time is running out and 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,” said Graham Forbes of Greenpeace USA global plastics campaign. “While some substantive discussions have taken place, there is still a huge amount of work ahead of us.”

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