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Oil-Rich Nations Fight to Weaken Global Plastics Pollution Treaty as Climate Crisis Intensifies

Web ExclusiveJune 06, 2023
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The second round of negotiations for a global, legally binding treaty on plastics pollution took place last week in Paris, where many of the scientists and civil society members who attended sought to anchor the talks with a focus on climate change. Over 99% of plastic is made from fossil fuels. We get an update from Graham Forbes, leader for the Plastic-Free Future Project at Greenpeace USA, who headed their delegation at the meeting.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We look now at how the second round of negotiations for a global, legally binding treaty on plastics pollution took place last week in Paris, where many of the scientists and civil society members who attended sought to anchor the talks with a focus on climate change. Over 99% of plastic is made from fossil fuels.

For more, we’re joined by Graham Forbes, leader for the Plastic-Free Future Project at Greenpeace USA, who headed their delegation at this second Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee meeting of the global plastics treaty.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Graham. If you can talk about the significance of the meeting and the scope of the problem?

GRAHAM FORBES: Yeah. Well, thanks, and it’s great to be here.

And I think, really, the plastics treaty represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to tackle an issue that is driving climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution in every corner of the planet, including in our bodies. And when we gathered in Paris, more than 170 countries, the stakes are really high.

And I think, unfortunately, what we saw at the beginning of the negotiations was oil-producing countries really try to stall negotiations. And we spent almost two-and-a-half days dealing with procedural issues before we got to the substance or the meat of the negotiations late Wednesday night.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What were those procedural issues that they sought to raise?

GRAHAM FORBES: Yeah, so, I think we saw countries like Saudi Arabia really trying to play with the rules of procedure, which spoke to the, really, voting, and is this something that countries are going to need to vote on, or is this something that is going to be done by consensus. And so, that, I think, was really a delay tactic that we’ve seen in the climate negotiations and other U.N. processes.

But finally, sort of late Wednesday night, we were able to get to substantive issues. We had a relatively productive day on Thursday and, at the end of the negotiations, ended with what we needed, which was a mandate for a zero draft of the treaty text, which takes us to the next step, which we’re going to be negotiating over when we get to Nairobi in early November.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Graham Forbes, if you can talk about who was at the talks? I mean, it may surprise people to know, considering how little coverage it got, that there were more than 2,000 people there from over 200 countries. And if you can talk about the role of the fossil fuel industry and how powerful it is in shaping the discussion, and the role of activists, like yourself?

GRAHAM FORBES: Yeah. Well, I mean, you could really feel the presence of the fossil fuel industry in the room. It was literally flooded with lobbyists from companies like Exxon, Shell, Chevron, the American Chemistry Council, which represents plastic producers and chemical companies. And I think, at the end of the day, for the treaty to be impactful, we have to constrain, reduce and dramatically, really, shift away from plastic production. And the fossil fuel industry gets how high the stakes are. But there really is no way to get to a goal of ending plastic pollution by 2040 if we do not dramatically reduce plastic production.

And so, there were some really early concerns about access to the negotiations. And I think that UNEP was having some challenges around badging. And we sent a letter to UNEP signed by more than 170 organizations that called on the secretariat to address the conflict of interest from the fossil fuel industry and ensure that independent scientists, folks most impacted by the plastic pollution crisis, including frontline communities, Indigenous communities and workers, were going to be front and center in how we transition away from plastics and away from a fossil fuel-based economy.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Graham, I wanted to ask you: This whole issue of recycling versus reduction, who’s pushing on either side of this debate?

GRAHAM FORBES: Yeah. One of the biggest risks is that the treaty effectively is a waste management treaty. For more than a hundred years, fossil fuel companies, the consumer goods industry has been putting forward recycling as sort of the core message around how we deal with plastic pollution. And I think that does a couple of things. It really deflects responsibility away from the producers and really puts responsibility back on sort of local governments and on individuals. And we know that does not work. We’ve recycled less than 10% of plastics that’s ever been produced. The fossil fuel industry is looking to expand plastic production. It’s projected to double in the next 10 to 15 years. And really, recycling at this stage is not where we need the focus to be.

And I think the meat of the negotiations, the meat of the impact that we’re trying to achieve, is going to be around constraining plastic production. And many of our allies from frontline communities, living in Houston, in Texas, in the Permian Basin, you know, their communities are being poisoned by plastic production. There’s thousands of toxic chemicals that go in to make plastics. And that’s something that needs to be addressed for this treaty to be successful.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re talking about reducing, not recycling. And it’s interesting, given the tension between the United States, Russia and China, that they are actually together, on one side, when it comes to plastics, wanting a voluntary system in which countries establish their own rules. What are your problems with this, Graham?

GRAHAM FORBES: Yeah, I mean, I think decades of experience from climate negotiations have shown that voluntary commitments simply do not work. And there’s nothing right now preventing these countries from taking action in a voluntary manner. I think when we look at plastics, we know it’s a multinational, it’s a global problem, and we need global rules to constrain production. There is simply no way to manage the amount of plastics that the industry would like to produce.

And I think, you know, we need the United — that was one of the big takeaways from the meeting, is that the United States really came in under where we need them to be. Not only was their position weak, but they were also sort of dragging down ambition from the rest of the world, when we have more than 50 countries in a high-ambition coalition that understand we need to reduce plastic production. We have a business coalition also in the space that’s demanding reduction to plastic production. So, the science is abundantly clear. The moral imperative is abundantly clear. And we really need the United States to step up, acknowledge that global rules will be required, and sort of show the leadership that the world needs to address an issue that people care about.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the presence of these plastics? I mean, really describe the scope of the problem — for example, the islands of plastic that are floating in the world seas. And then talk about where these plastics are being dumped, and the concern of the African continent that they will be the junkyard of plastic.

GRAHAM FORBES: Yeah, plastic really pollutes across its entire lifecycle, from the extraction to the chemicals to the end of life, whether it’s being burned in a landfill or in open dump sites in different parts of the world. And, unfortunately, once it’s created, plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller particles. Almost weekly, we’re finding new studies about the impacts of plastics on human health. It’s in our blood. It’s in human fetuses. It’s really polluting not just the entire natural world, but also our bodies. And I think that’s something — we just came out with a report called “Forever Toxic” that looks at, once the toxic chemicals are in plastics, recycling them is essentially just recycling toxic chemicals.

And so, when you look at global production right now, about 40% of that goes to single-use plastics. There was a study in 2022: More than 75% of people across 28 countries say that single-use plastics should be banned as soon as possible. And with that kind of public engagement and sort of clear demands from the public, I think it’s clear what world leaders need to do, for a problem that costs just far outweigh any potential benefits that we’re getting from this, you know, highly, really quite toxic material.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But given the facts and what’s already been established in terms of the worldwide dangers of continued production of plastics, why does industry, and the fossil fuel industry in particular, resist finding other means of packaging material?

GRAHAM FORBES: Yeah, well, you know, we think that’s a huge opportunity. And it was really interesting in the negotiations. You start to see a breakdown between sort of the fossil fuel industry, that’s responsible for producing plastics, and then companies like in the consumer goods sector, for example, that, theoretically, are selling food and consumer goods products in plastics. And from the consumer goods side, you know, we heard from a number of companies. What they’re looking for is clear global rules, so that they can transition away from plastics, really start to build out reuse-based systems that are toxic-free, sort of zero-waste, low-carbon solutions. And so, we think that in that way, industry really can evolve.

When you’re talking about the fossil fuel industry, this is really their escape hatch. And I think that’s why strategically we want the world to really wake up at what’s at stake here around our relationship with fossil fuels. And so, the fossil fuel industry is expecting and should see declines in transportation and energy, and so petrochemicals, plastic production is sort of the golden parachute that they’re looking to use as a way to offset declines in these other areas. And that’s something the world human health, human rights and social justice, really, we just cannot allow that to happen. I think many countries get that. And we’re expecting that the global treaty is going to, you know, really be a huge opportunity to address and tackle this problem head on.

AMY GOODMAN: Graham Forbes, finally, you mentioned that the next meeting is going to be in Nairobi, in Kenya. If you can talk about the significance of it being in Africa, and also being in what’s considered the birthplace of this agreement, why Nairobi, Kenya, is so important? And what is going to happen there?

GRAHAM FORBES: Yeah, so, INC-3, that’s coming in November in Nairobi, is going to be — we are going to start getting into the details of the agreement, and it’s going to be sort of a critical next negotiation.

And when you look at Africa, there was a story that broke a couple of years ago around the American Chemistry Council lobbying in trade agreements to ensure that they would be able to continue to export more and more plastic to Africa. And once that news broke, I think it was Kenya took action to reverse that. But in many ways, it’s at the forefront of the battleground around the future of our relationship to plastics and to petrochemicals. And I think, you know, these countries obviously have tremendous natural resources. They have many traditional methods where single-use plastic is absolutely not required, sort of reuse-based models. And the stakes are very high there.

And I think that, in many ways, it’s symbolic in terms of the opportunities and what we can achieve through a just transition away from a plastic-based economy, and sort of the risks of not taking action and what that will mean for the rest of the world, starting in, you know, where this — you know, in Africa, where we have so much at stake.

AMY GOODMAN: Graham Forbes, we want to thank you so much for being with us, leader for the Plastic-Free Future Project at Greenpeace USA, headed the delegation at the second Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee meeting of the global plastics treaty in Paris, France, which took place at the end of May into the beginning of June. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks for joining us.

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