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A UN gathering on addressing plastic waste draws a variety of voices


Around the world, plastic waste is spiraling out of control. This week in Kenya, countries are gathering to work on a U.N. treaty to deal with the issue. NPR's Julia Simon reports the fossil fuel industry wants to have a big say in solutions.

JULIA SIMON, BYLINE: Around 400 million tons of plastic goes into the environment each year. Bethanie Carney Almroth is a professor at University of Gothenburg in Sweden. She puts the problem this way.

BETHANIE CARNEY ALMROTH: Plastic is in every single environment on the entire planet, from the deepest oceans to the atmosphere to human bodies. It's everywhere.

SIMON: Around 150 countries are meeting in Nairobi to figure out how to deal with this. They don't all agree, says Charles Goddard at Economist Impact. He says on one side...

CHARLES GODDARD: There are those that want the plastics treaty to focus on the waste collection and recycling.

SIMON: But recycling has never really worked. Less than 10% of plastic is recycled globally. It's energy intensive, and lots of plastic waste can't be recycled at all. So Goddard says on the other side are countries, environmental groups and scientists pushing another argument.

GODDARD: To concentrate on the life cycle of plastics. That includes the production of plastics.

SIMON: Basically, they want to cap the amount of new plastic companies produce. Goddard says not everybody is a fan of that.

GODDARD: Unsurprisingly, those countries and those companies that are engaged in the production of plastics and in the production of fossil fuels.

SIMON: Most plastics are made from planet-heating fossil fuels, like oil and gas. Demand for oil for cars and trucks is projected to fall as people buy more electric vehicles. That's why many in the oil industry see plastics and other petrochemicals as key for the future of their business. Marcos Orellana was appointed by the U.N. to monitor toxics and human rights. He says industry is pushing recycling-based solutions at the treaty talks to take the focus away from cutting new plastic production.

MARCOS ORELLANA: It signals an attempt, one would say, of escaping strict controls and the reduction of plastic, and instead trying to keep business as usual.

SIMON: Orellana says plastic credits are one proposed solution that would allow companies to keep doing business as usual. It's being discussed at the negotiations. And basically plastic credits would allow companies to help pay for projects that remove waste or recycle. Verra is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit working on plastic credits, and they're at these treaty negotiations. Verra's spokesperson, Joel Finkelstein, says cutting new plastic production is important. But the plastic credits could help funnel much-needed money to waste removal and recycling projects.

JOEL FINKELSTEIN: It's not like there's some big pool of money existing to clean this up, right?

SIMON: Verra was founded in 2007, and it's known for its work with carbon offsets. Its founding members included trade groups that represented major oil companies, among other corporations. When asked about these ties, Finkelstein says it makes sense to talk to big emitting companies that want to take action on climate.

FINKELSTEIN: I don't think that's a smoking gun. That's something we're proud of, that this is a way to unlock finance.

SIMON: As for plastics, Finkelstein says he thinks Verra should work aggressively with anyone on solutions while also pushing for integrity.

FINKELSTEIN: I question whether people would be willing to let plastic stay in the environment for the moral good of not engaging with people they don't like. I don't think we have the time or the ability to wait for that.

SIMON: In Kenya this week, how to reduce new plastic and recycle plastics will be central to the negotiations. So will questions over the role of governments and industries. Winnie Lau leads a project at The Pew Charitable Trusts to keep plastics out of oceans. She says cutting pollution will require a lot of different solutions and plenty of oversight.

WINNIE LAU: If you don't have the right accountability mechanism in place, they could be designed to not work at all and sometimes could make the problem worse.

SIMON: The U.N. hopes to have the plastic treaty all finalized next year.

Julia Simon, NPR News.

SHAPIRO: And NPR's Michael Copley contributed reporting. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Julia Simon
Julia Simon is the Climate Solutions reporter on NPR's Climate Desk. She covers the ways governments, businesses, scientists and everyday people are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She also works to hold corporations, and others, accountable for greenwashing.