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Nations are divided on how to reduce plastic pollution after a week of UN talks


Some 170 countries are engaged in tense negotiations over how to reduce plastic pollution after a week of UN talks in Paris surrounded by a frenzy of industry lobbying.

Negotiators have agreed to develop an initial draft of a treaty to reduce plastic pollution, but there is still division over issues such as whether the rules will be legally binding and whether they will limit the production of new plastic materials by petrochemical companies.

A group of 130 countries, including Mexico, Canada, New Zealand and most of Europe, want binding rules. But fossil fuel producing countries like the US, Russia and China want a less ambitious, voluntary system in which countries are free to set their own frameworks.

Capping new production would be a blow to the petrochemical industry, which is becoming more dependent on rising demand for plastic in emerging economies as the world moves away from fossil fuels.

A coalition of companies has supported the stricter approach, including some of the world’s largest consumer groups such as Unilever, Nestlé and PepsiCo, as well as retailers and packaging manufacturers. During the talks, they campaigned for standardized rules to address the full lifecycle of plastics, including reducing production, reuse and recycling, and phasing out harmful chemicals.

Jodie Roussell, senior public affairs manager for packaging and sustainability at Nestlé, said a legally binding agreement with harmonized rules was crucial. “Companies recognize that ambitious goals and aspirations to end plastic pollution in a treaty have little value in themselves,” she said on Saturday.

A binding treaty was needed to provide “regulatory predictability,” said Anke Boykin, senior director of global environmental policy at PepsiCo

But Emma Priestland from Break Free From Plastic said: “We understand companies need harmonized rules and that’s the best situation for them, but we don’t see them changing much in their business models right now.”

According to non-profit organization Break Free from Plastic, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Mondelēz and Unilever are the companies that cause the most plastic pollution.

Industry representatives lobbied heavily during the Paris negotiations © REUTERS

The American Chemistry Council (ACC), an industry association representing the petrochemical industry, advocated for solutions that do not require reduced production, such as waste management and recycling.

The ACC called for technological solutions such as chemical recycling, and stressed the need for the continued use of plastic materials in aerospace, transportation and medical applications.

“We’ve heard a lot of talk this week about limiting production, but we’ve also heard a lot of talk from governments about the role of plastics in meeting society’s goals,” said Stew Harris, ACC senior director of global plastics policy .

Activists warned that lobbying by the petrochemical industry could lead to a watered-down treaty.

Graham Forbes of Greenpeace USA said: “The overarching risk is that this treaty becomes a waste management treaty.”

Negotiations on the treaty’s contents did not begin until the third day of the Paris session, after Saudi Arabia, Russia and China objected to the treaty’s adoption by majority vote rather than consensus. Consensus would mean countries could veto its approval.

The first draft of the treaty is due to be produced in November and countries have until the end of next year to settle the final terms.

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Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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