Democrats push Biden to take stronger stance on plastics waste in pivotal negotiations

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Democratic senators are calling on the Biden administration to push for an ambitious deal at the pivotal United Nations talks on plastic pollution now unfolding in Ottawa, Canada.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told The Hill that the world needs the United States to stand for a strong treaty to cut down plastic waste amid mounting health and environmental concerns — but warned the administration’s current negotiating strategy risks giving polluters a “veto” over the process.

The U.S., he said, has bound itself with “self-imposed constraints [that] work to the advantage of the industry” the talks seek to regulate.

If the status quo holds, scientists project plastic production to double by midcentury — and waste in the ocean to triple by 2040. Countries like Saudi Arabia, China, Russia and Iran are leading a coalition that is pushing against limits on plastic production.

Last week, Whitehouse joined Sens. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) in calling on negotiators to “focus on achieving the strongest agreement possible.” In comments to The Hill, the Rhode Island senator argued such an ambitious treaty could also spur Congress to pass new legislation of its own.

Days after the lawmakers issued their call, however, the State Department committed itself to pursuing an agreement that secures unanimous approval — apparently abandoning the possibility of a tougher standard that can only win over a majority of countries participating in the talks, rather than all of them.

By doing so, Whitehouse said, the White House “just gave the worst-behaved participants in the process a veto that they know they can count on, no matter how unreasonably it’s used.”

He added that there’s been “no exploration of alternatives, nothing that might rattle the cages or cause some anxiety to potential obstructors.”

In a response to The Hill, the State Department said it did not comment on communications with Congress.

But the agency confirmed that it sought a treaty with “universal membership, including by the largest producers and consumers of plastic products and major sources of plastic pollution.”

The administration did not provide additional clarity on specific policies it was advocating for in the treaty.

Time is running out on the plastics talks, which are part of a United Nations Environment Program framework that seeks to address the growing amounts of harmful plastic in the world’s waters and in human bodies.

Last week, Whitehouse joined other Democratic senators at the fourth round of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-4) in Ottawa, where world leaders are rubbing shoulders with public health officials, civil society groups and the powerful petrochemical lobby, which has been a growing force in the talks.

Negotiators are divided between two camps: Global South nations, public health and environmental campaigners on the one hand, and plastics producers and major oil producers on the other.

The first camp — the 60-country High Ambition Coalition — wants to cut plastics production and consumption to “sustainable levels,” largely by reducing single-use plastics used for packaging and consumer goods. It also wants bans on the kinds of dangerous additives that make plastic unsafe to recycle, and heavy investment in new systems and facilities for reuse and recycling.

The second group, which calls itself the Like Minded Countries, comprises major petrochemical producers like Russia, China and Saudi Arabia. These groups oppose production limits or chemicals bans, and want the treaty to focus “only on tracking plastic waste,” according to Reuters.

The ongoing INC-4 conference has 196 petrochemical industry participants, according to analysis by the Center for International Environmental Law.

That’s nearly 40 percent more than were present at the last round of talks, which took place in Nairobi, Kenya, in November.

Industry groups have been supportive of the effort to reach a deal to reduce plastics waste. Members of the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty, for instance, have pushed for a binding global agreement on plastics, arguing that both voluntary corporate commitments and a hodgepodge of national regulations have failed to address the plastics crisis.

But industry representatives have also argued against plastic production limits like those that members of the High Ambition Coalition see as a necessary ingredient in stemming the rise in plastic pollution

U.S. negotiators, too, have pushed back against restricting production, according to University of California Berkeley researcher Douglas McCauley.

tool released by the University of California, Berkeley, which McCauley co-produced, helps show a “choose your own adventure” portfolio of solutions to help cut plastics waste by midcentury from its current soaring trajectory to a fraction of its current level.

According to that analysis, plastic waste can be largely removed from the environment by capping production of “virgin” plastics from fossil fuels at current levels, setting a requirement that all new plastics contain 40 percent recycled materials, charging producers for the waste they produce and funneling the money into vastly increased waste collection technology and practices, particularly across the global South.

The U.S. delegation has so far panned all these alternatives, though they have been “most strongly opposed to production caps,” said McCauley.

He credited the State Department delegation with being very willing to listen to public health and environmental researchers. “But I can’t say that we’re being heard,” he said.

Citing approximately a dozen conversations with negotiators, he said they seem most interested in urging each country to pursue its own strategy — a posture that he said contrasts with aggressive Biden administration rhetoric on the importance of environmental justice and equity.

The treaty offers wins in both of those domains for the Biden administration — “and yet still, there’s a complete absence of leadership from United States,” McCauley said.

“What we hear is that, instead of coming together, trying to solve this as an international community in the context of the treaty, their preference is to figure out how we can set up national laws? So for example: what could we do within the US for domestic policy?”

In his comments to The Hill, Whitehouse acknowledged the difficulty of capping plastic production. Plastics are woven into every portion of modern life, from automobiles and computers and windmill blades to clothing and medical devices.

But he argued that negotiators should still work to set aggressive limits. “I do think production caps and ultimately, ending production of the most dangerous and least recyclable ones — starting with the ones that are most used — would be a very logical outcome.”

Reducing pollution, Whitehouse argued, is often a bipartisan concern in the U.S. Bipartisan majorities passed the 2015 Microbead-Free Waters bill, which barred tiny plastic particles from cosmetics, and the 2022 Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, by which countries agreed to phase out ozone-destroying hydrofluorocarbons.

An ambitious treaty in the INC process, Whitehouse said, would create an impetus for Congress to take action “to catch up with the rest of the world” — and sweep the legs out from under industry opposition, because plastics and fossil fuel producers would have to follow treaty rules in other signatory countries around the world.

“It would be harder for the plastics industry — and the fossil fuel industry, which is essentially the supplier to the plastics industry — to prevent us from catching up to a standard that almost all the developed countries of the world had already agreed to,” he said.

Such a treaty, he said, “would move markets so that it would make it easier for the plastics industry to accept the change in US law because they’d have to change their products for the countries that were making the treaty. There’s a lot of ways in which it would be helpful to us.”

He argued that such a deal would be useful even if all countries participating in the negotiations didn’t sign it — because those that did would form a zone of “high ambition” that would put pressure on the rest.

“One could always have you always proceed with the treaty without consensus. It is believed that consensus by a very small minority is being unreasonably withheld,” he said.

Even if countries deem consensus the ideal way to go, he added, there’s room for a bifurcated deal in which more ambitious countries push harder.

“We can go: okay, this is the best we could do with the unreasonable, small minority. But for the nations who wish to proceed to a more responsible, standard: we’re just going to go ahead and do that split level, with the more forward-leaning countries just going ahead and agreeing to their better plan amongst themselves without needing the buy-in of Russia or Iran, or Saudi Arabia.”

McCauley, the University of California, Berkeley, professor, contrasted the U.S. position in Ottawa with the country’s role in U.N. climate negotiations — where, despite concerted opposition from other fossil fuel exporting countries, it played a key role in pushing for the November admission by all world governments that fossil fuels were the basis of the climate crisis.

The country has yet to take up a similar role on plastics, he said, warning this could hamper negotiators’ ability to produce a strong final agreement. As nations such as Iran and Russia “are effectively trying to derail the process — without the US standing up to that clear oppositional force, there’s not really any hope that we’re gonna get there,” he said.

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