A global agreement aims to end plastic pollution. Observers warn that lobbyists in the gas, oil and plastics industries are slowing down and preventing environmental and health protection.
Norway’s Climate and Environment Minister Espen Barth Eide downplayed calls for a strict cap on plastic production, but told DW that production of so-called “virgin plastic” should be reduced.
Eide is co-chair of the so-called High Ambition coalition of 50 countries, including the EU, Rwanda, Norway, Chile and Japan, which wants to sharply reduce plastic production.
Other countries with large petrochemical industries such as China, USA and Saudi Arabia only want to tackle the problem with recycling and waste management.
As more plastic is recycled and reused in a circular economy, the demand for virgin plastics will decrease. “We agree that we must at least reduce the production of new plastics,” says Eide. “The more circular it becomes, the less (new plastic) you have to produce, of course.”
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), which is leading the talks in Paris this week, released a report ahead of time that it could reduce plastic pollution by 80 percent. The problem of plastic production could be largely avoided and the focus instead placed on a circular economy.
However, environmental groups warn that the talks are too focused on recycling rather than reducing the production of plastics in the first place. Environmental group Greenpeace is calling for a 75 percent reduction in production compared to 2017, as most plastics remain extremely difficult to recycle.
“If we continue to focus on recycling and encourage a range of misguided solutions such as chemical recycling, cement kilns or turning waste into energy, we will be addressing some of the worst impacts of climate change,” says Graham Forbes, global project leader for plastics at Greenpeace in the US.
How bad is the plastic problem?
According to UNEP, around 460 million tons of plastic are produced worldwide every year. Of this, less than 10 percent is currently recycled globally, around 65 percent is buried or burned and around 25 percent remains in the environment, in the soil and in the sea.
Plastic waste will triple by 2060 without protective measures, according to a 2022 study.
Made from petroleum and natural gas, plastic can now be found in the deepest oceans and highest mountains, right down to the stomachs of seabirds and the human body. The Norwegian Eide even found plastic and the chemicals mixed into it in his own blood test results. While the extent of plastic pollution on land is not well understood, it is responsible for 80 percent of marine pollution.
Melanie Bergmann, a marine biologist at Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute, began studying plastic pollution when she was confronted with huge amounts of plastic debris that hampered her studies, even on the deep sea floor of the Arctic. Since then, Bergmann has found frozen plastic in Arctic sea ice, algae, tiny zooplankton, and deep-sea sediment samples.
Still, oil and gas companies like Shell and ExxonMobil have ramped up production and invested billions in new plastics production facilities. They want to open up new markets for their products and counteract the shift to renewable energies. “While we are discussing reducing plastic pollution, they are building new factories. And we don’t even have the capacity to monitor the impact or the extent of the pollution,” says Bergmann.
A recent study found that just 20 petrochemical companies are responsible for more than half of the world’s single-use plastic waste.
USA and Saudi Arabia hesitate on the plastic agreement
Last year, countries agreed to adopt a plastic deal, acknowledging that plastic pollution is a serious environmental problem. But how to deal with this problem remains controversial between countries.
Several insiders told DW in a confidential conversation that the major oil-producing country Saudi Arabia is showing the greatest resistance to an ambitious plastic agreement with delays on procedural issues and voting rules. The USA, China and India also showed little ambition during the talks.
The US has been accused of mimicking calls from lobby groups like the American Chemical Council (ACC) to keep the focus on recycling and limit controls. In addition, the United States has been accused of supporting measures that are based solely on voluntary commitments by states to reduce plastic.
Others, like Norway’s climate minister Eide and environmental groups, believe the global treaty should set out legally binding rules.
Leaving it up to individual countries would be unfair to regions like Latin America and Africa, which don’t produce much plastic or chemicals, says Björn Beeler of Sweden-based International Network for Pollution Elimination and Toxic-Free Futures (IPEN). “The climate model with a national approach (instead of binding global rules) would again be a failure, because you can’t really solve a global problem at the national level,” says Beeler.
Dealing with the flood of plastic waste and the toxins it contains
The High Ambition coalition wants a comprehensive approach to ending plastic pollution by 2040, linking the problem to the climate crisis and biodiversity loss.
In a press release, the group also points to the acceleration of single-use plastic production and stresses that the world cannot deal with the growing amount of waste. Eide from Norway says the focus should be on producing better plastic, avoiding dangerous chemical additives there and making recycling easier.
“Of course we don’t want to get rid of plastic, because plastic will come in many forms in the future,” Eide told DW.
The treaty should focus on “plastics that are most prone to pollution, either because they contain toxic substances, because they are intended for single use only, or because they are manufactured in a way that makes them very difficult or even impossible to recycle.” , according to Eide.
The High Ambition coalition stresses the health concerns of plastics, citing the dangerous chemicals they contain. According to UNEP, at least 3,200 of the 13,000 different chemicals associated with plastics are of concern.
What are the plastic manufacturers doing?
The association of plastic manufacturers, the Plastics Industry Association, does not want to limit global plastic production. The association defended this to DW and declared that it supported the approach of a circular economy.
Leaked information to Reuters news agency revealed that US lobby group ACC and its Brussels counterpart Plastics Europe have been working behind the scenes to limit the scope of the planned plastic deal. You founded the Business for Plastic Pollution Action alliance to highlight the benefits of plastic.
A group of 174 NGOs, scientists and organizations – including well-known behavioral scientist Jane Goodall, Greenpeace and the Center for International Environmental Law – have written an open letter calling on UNEP to stop the influence of gas, oil and plastic industry lobbyists limit in the negotiations.
The group quoted the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in the letter as saying there is a “fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the interests of the plastics industry … and the human rights and political interests of people affected by the plastics crisis.”