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Global talks to cut plastic waste stall as industry and environmental groups clash

A man picks through plastic waste at a garbage dump in Kenya.
TONY KARUMBA
/
AFP via Getty Images
A man picks through plastic waste at a garbage dump in Kenya.

Negotiations over a global plastics treaty ended in Kenya with little progress toward reining in plastic waste, as environmental groups criticized oil and gas producers for blocking a final decision on how to advance the deliberations.

Members of the United Nations want to finalize a treaty by the end of 2024 to reduce the vast amount of plastic waste that piles up in landfills and the environment. Plastic production is expected to soar in the coming years, and almost every piece of it is made from chemicals derived from fossil fuels.

Representatives from around 150 countries met for talks last week in Nairobi. Most of them "worked to find commonalities among diverse global perspectives, but the entire process was continually delayed by a small number of Member states prioritizing plastic and profit before the planet," Erin Simon, head of plastic waste and business at the World Wildlife Fund, said in a statement. The talks ended on Sunday.

Groups that want to see deep cuts in plastic waste worry plastic producers will weaken the treaty. The oil and gas industry is pushing recycling and waste management as solutions, rather than reducing how much new plastic gets made in the first place.

However, years of research and investigations, including by NPR, have shown recycling isn't working. There's also disagreement over whether the treaty should have binding global rules or be based on voluntary targets. Experts say dealing with the problem will require a mix of solutions, but that reducing production of new plastic is essential.

Most countries seem to support "strong, robust terms" for an agreement, Simon told NPR on Sunday. But there are "a handful of really lower ambition countries calling for a looser voluntary agreement."

The challenge is coming up with a plan that's effective in cutting plastic waste and that also gets buy-in from all the countries involved. Big oil and gas producers like China, Russia and Saudi Arabia are at the negotiating table. The United States, which was the world's top oil and gas producer in 2022, has said plastic pollution needs to be dealt with "at every stage of the plastic lifecycle," from production to waste management.

Industry lobbyists also have a big presence at the talks. The Center for International Environmental Law said 143 lobbyists from the fossil fuel and chemical industries registered for the latest round of negotiations, an increase of 36% from the last round of talks that ended in June.

"The results this week are no accident," David Azoulay, program director for environmental health at the Center for International Environmental Law, said in a statement. "Progress on plastics will be impossible if Member States do not confront and address the fundamental reality of industry influence in this process."

Before this round of negotiations started, an industry advocacy group called American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers said restricting fossil fuel production and plastic manufacturing are not good solutions. Instead, it said the goals of the treaty can be achieved "if waste is recyclable, properly managed and kept out of the environment."

An ExxonMobil spokesperson said in a statement in early November that the company is "launching real solutions to address plastic waste and improve recycling rates." The company has previously said the problem of plastic waste can be solved without cutting how much plastic society uses.

Graham Forbes, the head of Greenpeace International's treaty delegation, said in a statement that governments are allowing fossil fuel producers to shape the negotiations.

"It's clear the present process cannot overcome the coordinated opposition of those who block consensus and progress at every turn," Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law, said in a statement.

Without major change, Muffett said the next round of talks in Canada in April 2024 will be "a polite but massive failure."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.