Delegates from more than 150 countries, plastic industry representatives, environmentalists, scientists, waste pickers, tribal leaders end negotiations in Uruguay to draft what is intended to be a landmark treaty to end plastic pollution globally.

Developing countries say they need financial support to combat plastic pollution.
Developing countries say they need financial support to combat plastic pollution. (AP Archive)

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

The meeting on Friday was the first of a United Nations committee set up to draft what is intended to be a landmark treaty to end 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 news agency.

"Billions of tonnes 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."

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.

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 also are frustrated by the problem. But he said they won’t support production restrictions, as some countries want.

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'Low ambition' group

The United States, a top plastic-producing country, agrees national plans allow governments to prioritise the most important sources and types of plastic pollution.

China's delegate said it would be hard to effectively control global plastic pollution with one or even several universal approaches.

Saudi Arabia's delegate also said each country should determine its own action plan, with no standardisation or harmonisation among them.

Some referred to these countries as the "low ambition" group.

Andres Del Castillo, senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law, said that while national plans are important, they should not be the treaty's backbone because that's the system — or lack of one — that the world already has.

"We don't see a point of meeting five times with experts all around the world to discuss voluntary actions when there are specific control measures that are needed that can aim to reduce, then eliminate plastic pollution in the world," he said after participating in the discussions Thursday. "It's a transboundary problem."

READ MORE: Scientists detect microplastics in human blood for first time

'High ambition coalition'

The self-named "high ambition coalition" of countries want to end plastic pollution by 2040, using an ambitious, effective international legally-binding instrument.

They're led by Norway and Rwanda.

Norway's delegate to the meeting said plastic production and use must be curbed, and the first priority should be to identify which plastic products, polymers and chemical additives would bring the fastest benefit if phased out.

African nations, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru and others called for a global approach too, arguing that voluntary and fragmented national plans won’t address the magnitude of plastic pollution.

Small island countries that rely on the ocean for food and livelihoods spoke of being overwhelmed by plastic waste washing up on their shores. 

Developing countries said they need financial support to combat plastic pollution.

Australia, the United Kingdom and Brazil said international obligations should complement national action.

Mathur-Filipp said that for the next meeting, she will write a draft of what a legally-binding agreement would look like.

Organisers don't want this to take a decade, she said.

The next meeting is planned for the spring in France.

READ MORE: ‘Critical milestone’: UN member states confront plastic pollution

Source: AP