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With a deadline looming, countries race for a global agreement to cut plastic waste

Volunteers clean up plastic waste on a beach in Peru.
AFP via Getty Images
Volunteers clean up plastic waste on a beach in Peru.

Negotiators from 170 countries are nearing a deal on a global treaty to cut plastic waste, according to a United Nations official at the latest round of talks. But environmentalists say the plastic industry is still standing in the way of an effective accord.

After a week of talks in Canada, negotiators have a "clear path to landing an ambitious deal" on plastic pollution at a final round of negotiations in South Korea in November, Inger Andersen, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme, said in a statement.

"The work, however, is far from over," she added. "The plastic pollution crisis continues to engulf the world, and we have just a few months left before the end of year deadline agreed upon in 2022."

Environmental groups following the talks say some countries continue to block a crucial measure: A global limit on the production of new plastic, which researchers say is essential to rein in pollution.

"This process must begin with overall production reduction, immediately phasing out single-use plastics, recognizing that recycling has not worked and will not," Steve Trent, chief executive of the Environmental Justice Foundation, said in a statement.

Plastic is made from fossil fuels, and major oil and natural gas producers like Russia and Saudi Arabia have been widely criticized for throwing up roadblocks in the negotiations in order to protect future profits. However, scientists and environmentalists say the United States also bears a lot of blame. The country is the top producer of oil and gas globally, and it has the world's biggest economy, which has historically given the U.S. huge sway in environmental negotiations.

Critics say American negotiators haven't been willing to push for a global cap on plastic production, and are instead throwing their weight behind measures like recycling that are favored by the country's fossil fuel and petrochemical industries.

"The United States needs to stop pretending to be a leader and own the failure it has created here," Carroll Muffett, chief executive of the Center for International Environmental Law, said in a statement.

A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said in a statement to NPR that so-called downstream measures like recycling and waste management on their own won't solve the problem of plastic pollution, and that the country is looking for ways to reduce demand for new plastic.

Erin Simon, head of plastic waste and business at the World Wildlife Fund who attended the talks in Canada, says the U.S. and a lot of other countries are showing more willingness to try to compromise.

"I saw countries brainstorming," Simon says. "I saw them trying to come up with creative solutions to meet everybody's needs as best as possible. I saw them conceding on things. It's the messy part of the process that you want to see."

The State Department has said that for an agreement to be effective, it needs to be supported by every country, including nations that are major producers of fossil fuels and plastics.

More than 50 countries now say they want an agreement to include targets for reducing plastic production, according to the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), an environmental justice group. French officials said the Group of Seven (G7) wealthy countries, which includes the U.S., is "committed to reducing the overall production."

The State Department previously told NPR that countries should be free to try to limit the supply of new plastic. A lot of nations want to do that with caps on manufacturing.

"The drumbeat to reduce plastic production is growing from countries worldwide," Ana Rocha, GAIA's director of global plastics policy, said in a statement. "More and more leaders are waking up to what the science and our lived experiences tell us: plastic is pollution, and we need to stop it where it starts."

Meanwhile, the plastics industry is increasing its efforts to influence the talks. The number of lobbyists for the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries who registered to attend the negotiations in Canada jumped 37% from the previous round of talks in Kenya in late 2023, according to an analysis by the Center for International Environmental Law.

"The outcome of these talks is of critical importance to countries and communities around the world, and it is vital to expose and confront the role of corporations whose agendas are fundamentally in conflict with the global public interest," Delphine Lévi Alvarès, global petrochemical campaign manager at the Center for International Environmental Law, said in a statement.

Matt Seaholm, chief executive of the Plastics Industry Association, pushed back on efforts to "exclude industry from involvement" in the negotiations.

"Our industry welcomes an open process and actively seeks compromise through these negotiations because we want to see attainable environmental goals and are committed to collaboration to get it done," Seaholm said in a statement to NPR.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Michael Copley
Michael Copley is a correspondent on NPR's Climate Desk. He covers what corporations are and are not doing in response to climate change, and how they're being impacted by rising temperatures.
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