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Cleaning Up Plastic Pollution

Uruguay Meeting Starts Talks on International Treaty

Plastics found in a seabird’s stomach.   ©Chris Jordan (US Fish and Wildlife Service HQ)/Wikimedia (CC BY-2.0)
Plastics found in a seabird’s stomach. ©Chris Jordan (US Fish and Wildlife Service HQ)/Wikimedia (CC BY-2.0)

The first session of an international effort to control and eliminate plastic pollution on land and sea was held in Uruguay in late November.

According to a news brief by Reuters, 2,000 representatives from 160 nations met in Punta del Este for the first International Negotiating Committee (INC-1), which is organized under the UN Environment Programme.

The goal of INC-1 was to start the dialogue on a legally binding, international agreement on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment. A second meeting, INC-2, is planned for May 2023, and the goal for completion of a document is the end of 2024.

Among the negotiators were representatives from the US and Saudi Arabia. Both are home to some of the world’s top plastic and petrochemical companies.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged a crackdown on both plastic pollution and production. "I call on countries to look beyond waste and turn off the tap on plastic," he said via Twitter.

UN member nations had agreed in March to develop a treaty to deal with plastic waste. Negotiations are expected to address several knotty issues, such as limits on plastic production, phaseouts of some types of plastic, and whether nations will be required to act or left to their best judgments.

The INC-1 had a group of forty nations, including Ghana, Uruguay, and EU members, that called themselves the High Ambition Coalition. Their goal is a treaty with mandatory measures, such as curbs on plastics production.

"Without a common international regulatory framework, we will not be able to address the global and increasing challenge of plastic pollution," said coalition member Switzerland in a position statement.

The Swiss statement contrasted with that of the US, which prefers country-driven pledges.

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

The US favors an agreement similar to the Paris climate agreement, in which countries set their own strategies and goals. Saudi Arabia seeks a pact “based on national circumstances” that is focused on plastic litter.

As expected, industry and NGO views of the negotiations differed. "Although in the minority, there are some powerful opponents of global rules and standards, which risk potentially weakening obligations on countries to take action,” said World Wide Fund for Nature’s Eirik Lindebjerg, who leads the conservation organization’s global plastics policy.

"At the end of the day, we hope the committee comes to the same conclusion we do, which is that increasing recycling offers the best solution to reducing plastic waste," said Matt Seaholm, president and CEO of the Plastics Industry Association.

Despite such differences, Reuters cited observers who see growing agreement regarding the problem of plastic pollution. "Plastics are not anymore being seen as just a marine litter issue. People are discussing plastic as a material made of chemicals. … There has been a narrative shift,” said Vito Buonsante, policy adviser for the International Pollutants Elimination Network.


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