Countries divided over plastics treaty as UN talks wind down

WASHINGTON, Dec 2 (Reuters) – The first round of negotiations on a global plastics treaty ended on Friday with an agreement to end plastic pollution, but a split over whether the goals and efforts should be global and binding or voluntary and run by the country.

More than 2,000 delegates from 160 countries, gathered in Uruguay for the first of five planned sessions of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC), aim to develop the first legally binding agreement on plastic pollution by the end of 2024.

Negotiations in the coastal city of Punta del Este pitted a “Highly Ambitious Coalition” including members of the European Union with countries such as the United States and Saudi Arabia, which own the world’s biggest plastics and petrochemicals companies.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, declaring that plastics are “fossil fuels in another form”, urged nations to crack down on pollution and production.

“We are calling on countries to look beyond waste and turn off the plastic tap,” he said on Twitter.

United Nations members agreed in March to create the treaty to tackle the scourge of plastic waste, but differ on major issues, including whether to limit plastic production, phase out types of plastic and harmonize global rules.

The highly ambitious coalition of more than 40 countries, including EU members Switzerland, host Uruguay and Ghana, wants the treaty to be based on binding global measures, including production cuts.

“Without a common international regulatory framework, we will not be able to tackle the global and growing challenge of plastic pollution,” Switzerland said in its position statement.

This approach contrasts with country-led commitments supported by countries including the United States and Saudi Arabia.

“The United States is committed to working with other governments and stakeholders throughout the INC process to develop an ambitious, innovative and country-led global agreement,” a US State Department spokesperson said in a statement.


Washington has said it wants the pact to resemble the structure of the Paris climate accord, with countries setting their own greenhouse gas reduction targets and action plans.

Saudi Arabia has said it wants a treaty focused on plastic waste, built on “a bottom-up approach and based on national circumstances”.

Critics say such an approach would weaken a global treaty.

“Although in the minority, there are some strong opponents of global rules and standards, which risk weakening countries’ obligations to take action,” said Eirik Lindebjerg, WWF’s global plastics policy lead.

Industry representatives at the talks promoted the essential role of plastics in everyday life, calling for the treaty to focus on tackling waste rather than production-killing measures.

“At the end of the day, we hope the committee will come to the same conclusion as us, which is that increasing recycling offers the best solution to reducing plastic waste,” said Matt Seaholm, president and CEO of the Plastics Industry Association.

Environmental group Greenpeace said that without a strong treaty, plastic production could double in the next 10-15 years and triple by 2050.

Even though some countries are divided over what approach the treaty should take, some observers said there appears to be growing agreement that plastic pollution is not just about waste ending up in the ocean.

“Malasse are no longer seen as just a marine litter problem. People talk about plastic as a material made of chemicals,” said Vito Buonsante, policy advisor for the International Pollutant Elimination Network. “There has been a narrative shift.”

Report by Valerie Volcovici in Washington; Edited by William Mallard

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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