© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A plastic bottle lies on the sand on the beach of Maccarese, west of Rome, Italy November 21, 2018. REUTERS/Max Rossi
By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The first round of talks on a global plastic agreement ended on Friday with an agreement to end plastic pollution but split over whether the goals and efforts should be global and legal, or voluntary and national.
More than 2,000 delegates from 160 countries, who met in Uruguay for the first of five planned sessions of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC), aim to create the first official agreement on plastic pollution by the end of 2024.
Talks in the coastal city of Punta del Este pitted the “High Ambition Coalition,” including members of the European Union, against countries including the United States and Saudi Arabia, which own the world’s largest plastic and oil companies.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, saying that plastics are “a form of fossil fuel,” urged countries to combat pollution and production.
“I call on countries to stop littering and turn off the plastic bomb,” he said on Twitter.
Members of the United Nations agreed in March to create an agreement to combat the epidemic of plastic waste but differ on key issues, including reducing plastic production, eliminating types of plastic and coordinating international laws.
The High Ambition Coalition of more than 40 countries, including EU members, Switzerland, Uruguay and Ghana, wants the deal to be based on internationally accepted standards, including production restrictions.
“Without an internationally accepted policy, we cannot deal with the global and growing problem of plastic pollution,” Switzerland said in a statement.
This approach differs from the country-led pledges made by countries including the United States and Saudi Arabia.
“The United States is committed to working with other governments and stakeholders throughout the INC to create a desirable, strategic and nationally-led international partnership,” a US State Department spokesperson said in a statement.
‘THE THINGS THAT HAPPENED ARE ALL CLEAN’
Washington has said it wants the agreement to be similar to the Paris climate agreement, in which countries have set their own greenhouse gas reduction targets and action plans.
Saudi Arabia has said it wants a deal that focuses on plastic waste that is built on a “ground-up and sustainable approach.”
Critics say doing so would weaken international cooperation.
“Even though they are few, there are strong opponents of international laws and standards, which can weaken the responsibility of countries to act,” said Eirik Lindebjerg, WWF’s global director.
Industry representatives at the meeting highlighted the important role of plastics in everyday life, and called on the union to focus on dealing with waste rather than reducing production.
“At the end of the day, we hope that the committee will come to the conclusion that what we do, that increased recycling provides a better solution to plastic waste,” said Matt Seaholm, president and CEO of the Plastics Industry Association.
The environmental group Greenpeace says that without strong cooperation, plastic production could double within the next 10 to 15 years, and triple by 2050.
Although some countries are divided on the direction the agreement should take, some observers said that there seems to be a growing consensus that plastic pollution is not only about the waste that ends up in the ocean.
“Plastic is no longer seen as an issue of marine litter. People are talking about plastic as a chemical product,” said Vito Buonsante, policy advisor for the International Pollutants Elimination Network. “There’s been a shift in the narrative.”