Like a Paris deal for plastics, countries want to end plastic pollution with a global treaty. But observers are already concerned that it is ignoring the most obvious solution, while others are dragging their feet.
Norway's climate and environment minister played down calls for strict caps on the production of plastic but said the manufacture of so-called "virgin plastic" should be reduced, as talks on a global treaty to stop the mounting plastic pollution crisis opened on Monday.
More than 145 countries are hoping to hammer out a treaty by 2025, with Norway co-leading the High Ambition Coalition in the talks. Environment minister Espen Barth Eide told DW that market demand for new plastics would decrease as the circular economy increased.
"We agree that we need to reduce production at least of virgin plastics," Eide said. "Of course, the more circular it becomes, the less (virgin plastic) you need to produce."
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which is running the talks, released a paper ahead of the negotiations which found plastic pollution could be reduced by 80%. It largely avoided the production issue, focusing instead on a circular economy.
But environmental groups are warning that the talks are too focused on recycling instead of reducing the production of plastic in the first place. Environmental group Greenpeace is calling for production to be slashed by 75% compared to 2017 levels, because recycling most types of plastic, which are made from fossil fuels, remains extremely difficult.
"If we keep the focus at the end of the pipe and on recycling and promoting a bunch of false solutions like chemical recycling, or cement kilns, or waste-to-energy, we will lock ourselves into some of the worst impacts of climate change," said Graham Forbes, global plastics project leader at Greenpeace USA.
How bad is the plastic problem?
Plastic manufacturers produce about 460 million tons of plastic a year — a quarter of which ends up polluting the planet, according to the UNEP. Less than 10% of plastic is recycled. The rest is buried in landfills or incinerated. Plastic waste is set to triple by 2060 and may already have exceeded safe planetary boundaries, found a 2022 study.
The fossil-fuel based product is found almost everywhere on the planet, from the deepest oceans and the highest mountains to the stomachs of sea birds and inside the human body. Norway's Eide even found plastic and additive chemicals in his own blood test results. While the extent of plastic pollution on land is understudied, it accounts for 80% of marine pollution.
Melanie Bergmann, a marine biologist at Germany's Alfred Wegener Institute, began studying plastic pollution when confronted by vast amounts of plastic debris impacting her studies even on the deep Arctic sea floor. Since then, Bergmann has found plastic frozen in Arctic sea ice, inside algae, in tiny zooplankton, and in deep sea sediment samples.
Still, fossil fuel companies such as Shell and Exxonmobil have ramped up production, investing billions in new plastic production plants as they seek new markets for their products to counteract a shift to renewable energy.
"While we're discussing the reduction of plastic pollution, they're building new factories. And we don't even have the capacity to monitor the effects or the extent of the pollution," Bergmann said.US, Saudi Arabia dragging heels on plastic treaty
Countries last year agreed to create this accord, acknowledging that plastic pollution represents a serious environmental problem. But how to tackle it leaves a wide gulf between parties.
Multiple insiders, who spoke to DW off the record so they could talk openly, said major petroleum producer Saudi Arabia has been one of the most resistant to an ambitious strategy, dragging their feet on procedural issues, such as voting rules. The United States, China, and India were also identified as having low ambition for the talks.
The US has been accused of parroting the demands of lobby groups such as the American Chemical Council (ACC) to keep the focus on recycling and to limit controls, and was also criticized for its support of individual countries voluntarily determining their own contribution to reducing pollution.
Others, like Norway's climate minister Eide and environmental groups, believe the global treaty should issue legally binding rules.
Leaving it up to individual countries would be unfair to regions like Latin America and Africa that don't manufacture much plastic or chemicals, said Bjorn Beeler, international coordinator of the Sweden-based International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN).
"So that national approach climate model (instead of binding global rules) would be a failure again because you can't really handle a global problem at a national level," said Beeler.
Dealing with the deluge of plastic waste
The High Ambition Coalition — which also includes Rwanda, Peru, European Union member states, Australia, several island nations, as well as some African and Latin American nations — want a comprehensive approach to end plastic pollution by 2040, linking the problem to the climate crisis and biodiversity loss.
In a press release, the group also pointed to accelerating production of single-use plastics in particular, saying the world cannot deal with growing levels of waste. Norway's Eide said they wanted to focus more on how plastic is manufactured to avoid dangerous chemicals and make it easier to recycle.
"We, of course, do not want to get rid of plastics, because there will be plastics in the future in many forms," Eide told DW.
The treaty should focus on "the types of plastic that lend themselves most to pollution, either because they contain toxic substances, or because they're single use or because they are developed in such a way that it is very hard and even impossible to recycle them," said Eide.
Plastic recycling inadvertently perpetuates toxic chemicals, according to recent IPEN research. The High Ambition Coalition pointed to health concerns regarding plastic across its life cycle, spotlighting the dangerous chemicals involved. At least 3,200 of the 13,000 different chemicals associated with plastics are known to be concerning, according to UNEP.
What are the plastic producers doing?
The Plastics Industry Association — which lobbies for the entire plastics supply chain — defended the "essential nature" of plastic and said it supported a circular economy approach, in a statement sent to DW.
It said it backed a move to transparency regarding material in plastic, but specifically spoke against caps on production.
Leaks to the Reuters news agency revealed that the US lobby group, the ACC, and its Brussels counterpart, Plastics Europe, have been working behind the scenes to limit the scope of the deal. They have formed the "Business for Plastic Pollution Action" alliance to tout the benefits of plastic.
A group of 174 NGOs, scientists and organizations — including Jane Goodall, Greenpeace, and the Center for International Environmental Law — penned an open letter calling on UNEP to limit the influence of fossil fuel lobbyists in the negotiations, who they say have a vested interest in undermining the deal.
The group quotes the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who said there is a "fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the interests of the plastics industry … and the human rights and policy interests of people affected by the plastics crisis."