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Global plastic pollution treaty talks hit critical stage in Canada

By JENNIFER McDERMOTT, Associated Press
Published: April 23, 2024, 8:14am
2 Photos
FILE - Pakistani laborers, mostly women, sort through empty bottles at a plastic recycling factory in Hyderabad, Pakistan, April 30, 2023.
FILE - Pakistani laborers, mostly women, sort through empty bottles at a plastic recycling factory in Hyderabad, Pakistan, April 30, 2023. (AP Photo/Pervez Masih, File) Photo Gallery

Thousands of negotiators and observers representing most of the world’s nations are gathering in the Canadian city of Ottawa this week to craft a treaty to stop the rapidly escalating problem of plastic pollution.

Each day, the equivalent of 2,000 garbage trucks full of plastic are dumped into the world’s oceans, rivers and lakes, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. People are increasingly breathing, eating and drinking tiny plastic particles.

Negotiators must streamline the existing treaty draft and decide its scope: whether it will focus on human health and the environment, limit the actual production of plastic, restrict some chemicals used in plastics, or any combination of the above. These are elements that a self-named “high ambition coalition” of countries want to see.

Alternatively, the agreement could have a more limited scope and focus on plastic waste and greater recycling, as some of the plastic-producing and oil and gas exporters want.

In March 2022, 175 nations agreed to make the first legally-binding treaty on plastics pollution, including in the oceans, by the end of 2024. It’s an extremely short timeline for negotiations, meant to match the urgency of the problem. This is the fourth of five meetings of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for Plastics.

It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fix something everyone knows needs to be fixed because plastic in the environment is not natural, said Inger Andersen, UNEP’s executive director.

“People globally are disgusted by what they see. The straw in the turtle’s nose, the whale full of fishing gear. I mean, this is not the world we want to be in,” she said in an interview.

Andersen rejected the idea it’s an “anti-plastic” process because plastic has many uses that help the world. But, she said, the treaty should eliminate unnecessary single-use and short-lived plastic products that often are buried, burned or dumped.

Plastic production continues to ramp up globally and is projected to double or triple by 2050 if nothing changes.

Researchers at the federal Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory published a report last week examining the climate impact.

If production grows conservatively, greenhouse gas emissions emitted from the process would more than double, they concluded. That could use 21% to 26% of the remaining so-called global carbon budget, which is how much carbon emissions can still be produced between now and 2050 while staying at or below the international goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) since the 1850s.

Most plastic is made from fossil fuels. Negotiators at the United Nations climate talks known as COP28 agreed last December the world must transition away from planet-warming fossil fuels and triple the use of renewable energy.

But as pressure to reduce fossil fuels has increased, oil and gas companies have been looking more to the plastics side of their business as a lifeboat, a market that could grow.

The largest challenge for the negotiations is that major oil and gas producing countries do not want a treaty that limits their ability to extract and export fossil fuels to make plastic, said Björn Beeler, international coordinator for the International Pollutants Elimination Network. IPEN wants a treaty that places global controls on hazardous chemicals in plastics and ends the rapid growth of plastic production.

“Production is at the center of everything, it’s the reason why this is moving slow. And it’s going to get supercharged,” he said. “It’s not about oceans. It’s more about oil.”

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon is leading a congressional delegation to Ottawa to advocate for a strong treaty. The U.S. government position, so far, is that nations should take voluntary steps to end plastic pollution, but that is not enough to drive change, Merkley said.

“The underlying reason why the U.S. is not ambitious is we are a fossil gas country,” he said.

ExxonMobil is increasing plastic production. It’s a useful, valuable material that improves the quality of lives around the world, and should replace other materials that emit more greenhouse gases, said Karen McKee, president of ExxonMobil Product Solutions Company and president of the International Council of Chemical Associations.

“That doesn’t mean that we’re not concerned about plastic waste in the environment. We do need to work on that issue,” she said. “But I would separate the production of plastic from the need to manage end-of-use plastic and to improve circularity.”

ExxonMobil broke down more than 45 million pounds of plastic waste last year at its massive complex in Baytown, Texas, through a process known as chemical recycling, McKee said. It plans to add the capability to many of its other manufacturing sites globally.

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Chris Jahn, president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council, the industry trade association, agreed with McKee. The focus should be on eliminating plastic pollution, without eliminating the benefits of plastic, he said.

When the treaty talks began in Uruguay in December 2022, factions quickly came into focus. Some countries pressed for global mandates, some for voluntary national solutions and others for both. Progress was slow during Paris talks in May 2023 and in Nairobi in November.

But there’s still enough time to advance an ambitious treaty, said Alexis Jackson, who will lead a delegation from The Nature Conservancy in Ottawa. The Nature Conservancy, Greenpeace and other environmental advocates believe the treaty must reduce the amount of plastic that is produced and used in order to end plastic pollution.

“We’re more than halfway through the process now so we have an undeniably large amount of work to do,” Jackson said. “But, I think that we can make change happen even when it’s difficult.”

Andersen, at the United Nations, also is optimistic there will be a meaningful treaty this fall at the final meeting in South Korea.

“Everybody wants this treaty,” she said. “There is a global demand for this, for a solution.”

The Associated Press’ climate and environmental coverage receives financial support from multiple private foundations. AP is solely responsible for all content. Find AP’s standards for working with philanthropies, a list of supporters and funded coverage areas at AP.org.

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