Big Oil’s plastic boom threatens ‘historic’ UN pollution pact

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When the United Nations this week agreed to a historic deal to create the world’s first-ever global plastic pollution treaty, all parties were quick to claim victory, from industry lobbyists to environmental activists. It could mean trouble.

The agreement to finalize such a treaty by 2024, which the United Nations Environment Assembly called “historic” and the most important green deal since the 2015 Paris climate agreement, was written in broad strokes.

This has given an intergovernmental negotiating committee the daunting task of reaching consensus on key issues such as how to deal with the growing production of single-use plastic, which is made from petroleum and is a growing market. growth in petrochemical centers like the United States, China, Saudi Arabia. Arabia and Japan.

Governments are under pressure to curb the proliferation of disposable plastic, from coffee cups to takeaway food containers to bubble wrap. An IPSOS survey published last month found that three in four people support banning single-use plastic, much of which ends up clogging the world’s oceans and urban waterways.

But there is a chasm between big plastic producers who want to focus on waste management and recycling, and the European Union and some developing countries pushing for restrictions on plastic production, according to interviews with delegates. , industry officials and environmental groups.

The UN negotiating committee, made up of representatives of member states, will hold five meetings over the next two years to try to reach an agreement.

“The big fight will be over production and whether countries want to put in place global regulations,” said Eirik Lindebjerg, head of global plastics policy at WWF.

“The wording of the resolution commits countries to finding solutions to these problems, but does not provide clear direction on how to proceed.

By 2050, the plastics industry could account for 20% of all oil consumption, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

On this trajectory, plastic pollution in the oceans will quadruple by 2050, some marine species will disappear and many sensitive ecosystems like coral reefs and mangroves will be damaged beyond repair, according to an analysis of more than 2,000 scientific studies published by WWF on last month.

The industry “very satisfied”

The petrochemical industry, which is set to double its production of virgin plastic resin by 2040, says better recycling and better waste collection is the solution.

“We do not support global resin production caps,” said Stewart Harris, director of plastics policy at the American Chemistry Council, an industry group representing companies like ExxonMobil, Shell and Dow.

Delegates attend the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5), at the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) headquarters in Gigiri, Nairobi, Kenya, on February 28. | Reuters

Harris said the industry was “very happy” with the outcome of the talks because it will allow countries to decide how they want to tackle waste, such as investing in recycling technology.

The United States, the world’s largest single-use plastic polluter per capita and home to several of the world’s largest chemical companies, has not been clear on whether it will impose limits on production.

“The goal here is to give countries the flexibility to develop national action plans that work best for them,” said Monica Medina, head of the US delegation in Nairobi.

“Overly prescriptive ‘top-down’ approaches can sometimes impede technological innovation.”

A series of surveys by Reuters last year showed that new recycling technologies promoted by the plastics industry have suffered major setbacks as there has been an increase in the burning of plastic waste as a good fuel. Marlet.

Less than 10% of plastic is recycled, in part because the new plastic produced by the oil industry is so abundant and cheap.

“It’s naïve to think that just recycling will help. We need to start with preventive measures,” said EU environment chief Virginijus Sinkevicius, adding that he wanted to see curbs on the production of virgin plastic.

Other major world powers favor a less direct approach.

‘Minefield’

Yoshihide Hirao, a Japanese environment official involved in the treaty negotiations, said Tokyo favored promoting the use of alternative materials like bioplastics rather than restricting virgin materials.

“Some countries may choose a stricter approach. That’s fine, but in our view it probably depends on national circumstances,” he said, adding that Japan’s large petrochemical sector had been receptive to the country’s “softer approach”.

The terms of the treaty will also affect consumer goods giants that currently sell thousands of products in single-use packaging, including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Unilever and Nestlé.

These companies, which have EU-mandated targets to increase the use of recycled materials in packaging, say they want a treaty that reduces virgin production and use.

UN Environment Program head Inger Andersen told reporters this week that cutting plastic production would be one of the most “complex” issues for negotiators to tackle.

Environmental groups expect two tough years of negotiations.

“This question of plastic production is going to be a minefield,” said Anne Aittomaki, strategic director of Danish environmental association Plastic Change.

“I think people don’t know what they signed up for.”

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