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Negotiators take first steps toward plastic pollution treaty

A man walks on a mountain of plastic bottles as he carries a sack of them to be sold for recycling in Dandora slum, Nairobi, on December 5, 2018. [AP Photo]

More than 2,000 experts wrapped up a week of negotiations on plastic pollution on Friday, at one of the largest global gatherings ever to address what even industry leaders in plastics say is a crisis.

It was the first meeting of a United Nations committee set up to draft what is intended to be a landmark treaty to bring an end to plastic pollution globally.

“The world needs this treaty because we are producing plastics by the billions,” said Jyoti Mathur-Filipp, executive secretary of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for plastics in an interview with The Associated Press. “Billions of tons of plastics are being produced every year and there is absolutely no way to ensure that this plastic doesn’t end up in the environment.”

Entire beaches on what used to be pristine islands are now mounded with trash. Examination of a random handful of sand in many places reveals pieces of plastic.

The United Nations Environment Programme held the meeting in a city known for its beaches, Punta del Este, Uruguay, from Monday through Friday.

Delegates from more than 150 countries, plastic industry representatives, environmentalists, scientists, waste pickers, tribal leaders and others affected by the pollution attended in person or virtually.

Waste pickers are seeking recognition of their work and a just transition to fairly remunerated, healthy and sustainable jobs.

Even in this first meeting of five planned over the next two years, factions came into focus. Some countries pressed for top-down global mandates, some for national solutions and others for both.

If an agreement is eventually adopted, it would be the first legally-binding global treaty to combat plastic pollution.

Leading the industry point of view was the American Chemistry Council, a trade association for chemical companies.

Joshua Baca, vice president of the plastics division, said companies want to work with governments on the issue because they are also frustrated by the problem.

But he said they won’t support production restrictions, as some countries want.

“The challenge is very simple. It is working to ensure that used plastics never enter the environment,” Baca said. “A top-down approach that puts a cap or a ban on production does nothing to address the challenges that we face from a waste management perspective.” The US, a top plastic maker, agrees national plans allow governments to prioritise the most important sources and types of plastic pollution.

Most plastic is made from fossil fuels. Other plastic-producing and oil and gas countries also called for putting the responsibility on individual nations. China’s delegate said it would be hard to effectively control global plastic pollution with one or even several universal approaches.