Debate exposes divisions in plastics treaty talks

Paris — Countries at the plastics treaty talks moved past procedural fights to begin debating substantive points late on May 31, but differences were still on display in public statements from diplomatic delegations.

Envoys from Saudi Arabia and Russia put more emphasis on contributions of plastics in remarks, while a representative of a group of 50-plus countries, calling itself the High Ambition Coalition, reiterated its call to reduce plastics production and phase-out problematic materials.

The United States, for its part, backed calls from the G7 bloc to eliminate plastics in the environment by 2040 and supported environmental justice measures, as it also urged countries for some national flexibility in the agreement.

When the public part of the conclave turned to those outside governments, The American Chemistry Council also backed the G7's 2040 call and said a "well-crafted" agreement could unlock investments to make plastics a less linear industry.

Ocean Conservancy, on the other hand, urged the treaty to set a 50 percent reduction in single-use plastics globally by 2050, saying it would be the greenhouse gas equivalent of taking every car on the planet off the road for over 18 months.

The beginning of substantive discussions in the evening of May 31 — 36 hours after they had been scheduled in the five-day meeting — came after countries brokered a compromise to move past strenuous procedural objections from Saudi Arabia and others that had delayed the meeting.

Those countries said they objected to voting procedures or requirements for consensus in the treaty. But some observers said it was instead a proxy fight over whether the treaty would call for limits on virgin plastics production.

The High Ambition Coalition, which counts Canada, France, Germany, Mexico and the United Kingdom among its members, said the agreement should restrain plastics production and called for using the precautionary principle.

"The coalition calls for binding provisions in the treaty to restrain and reduce the production and consumption of primary plastic polymers to sustainable levels," a diplomat from Mauritius said, speaking for the HAC.

The HAC also called for "binding provisions to eliminate and restrict unnecessary, avoidable or problematic plastic as well as the plastic polymers, chemical constituents and plastic products of particular concern for their adverse effects on the environment and human health," the diplomat said.

Saudi Arabia and the Russian Federation gave detailed comments urging other nations to consider the benefits of plastics, while saying they support a legally binding agreement to tackle plastic pollution.

"Plastic is a material which contributes to sustainable development," a Saudi Arabian diplomat said. "There are also new technologies that have been developed and innovations in the realm of plastic which are promoting economic growth through various sectors such as construction, medicine, and other industries."

In a possible reference to chemical recycling, he said later in his remarks: "We need to focus on investments in new technology that would allow us to better recycle plastics in a more effective manner."

A diplomat from the Russian Federation said they backed a treaty because plastic waste is a cross-border problem but also urged countries to recognize the benefits of plastics.

"A new international document needs to aim not [at] fighting plastic, but plastic pollution," the representative said. "Replacing plastics with alternatives needs to be done without sacrificing quality or effecting human health and the environment. We must admit that there are some plastic products which need to be made out of primary materials."

The Russian diplomat also offered support for extended producer responsibility plans in her remarks, echoing other countries.

Meanwhile, the United States pointed to a treaty with both obligations and voluntary measures.

"We seek an instrument with a range of obligations, commitments and voluntary approaches to take measures designed to prevent and reduce the flow of plastic into the environment in order to protect human health and the environment," the U.S. said. "These obligations and commitments should promote sustainable production and consumption of plastic, transition to more circular approaches to plastic and strengthen environmentally sound management of plastic waste."

"The United States, as one of the largest producers and consumers of plastic, is integral to solving the plastic pollution crisis," the diplomat said. "The instrument should allow flexibility in addressing different problems at various stages of the plastic life cycle, consistent with national circumstances and priorities, thereby maximizing our ambition."


» Publication Date: 01/06/2023

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