Countries make first global commitment to tackling plastic pollution

But US opposition scuttles bid to phase out single-use plastics by 2030

A man collects plastic for recycling in a dumpsite in Colombo, Sri Lanka February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte
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The world's nations have agreed to significantly curb the use of single-use plastic items such as straws, bags and bottles by 2030 in an effort to reduce pollution, but an attempt to phase them out altogether was blocked by the United States and some other countries.

The first global agreement on reducing plastic use followed five days of talks at the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) in Nairobi, with ministers from almost 200 countries taking part.

"We will address the damage to our ecosystems caused by the unsustainable use and disposal of plastic products, including by significantly reducing single-use plastic products by 2030," said a ministerial declaration at the end of the summit on Friday.

It said countries would "work with the private sector to find affordable and environmentally friendly alternatives".

The agreement is a watered-down version of an earlier proposal to phase out single-use plastics by 2025, following opposition by the US and some other rich countries, according to delegates.

"It's hard to find one solution for all member states," the assembly president, Siim Kiisler, told journalists before the final decision.

"The environment is at a turning point. We don't need verbose documents, we need concrete commitments."

The world currently produces more than 300 million tonnes of plastics annually, and there are at least five trillion plastic pieces floating in our oceans, scientists have estimated.

One million plastic drinks bottles are purchased every minute globally, while some 500 billion disposable plastic bags are used worldwide every year, said the United Nations.

Nearly a third of plastic packaging escapes waste collection systems, and at least 8 million tonnes of plastic leak into the oceans each year, smothering reefs and threatening marine life.

"The vast majority of countries came together [in Nairobi] to develop a vision for the future of global plastic governance," David Azoulay, from the Centre for International Environmental Law, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Seeing the US, guided by the interests of the fracking and petrochemical industry, leading efforts to sabotage that vision is disheartening."

Brian Doherty, a member of the US delegation, said there was a need to focus on waste management in countries which were major sources of marine plastic pollution, rather than focus on phasing out single-use plastics.

"We support reducing the environmental impacts from the discharge of plastics, but we further note that the majority of marine plastic discharges comes from only six countries in Asia where improved waste management could radically decrease these discharges," he said.

The pledge on reducing plastic use was issued on the same day that hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren across the world staged protests demanding action on climate change.

Students skipped class and flooded streets across Europe, North and South America, and Asia carrying placards reading: "There is no planet B", "You're destroying our future" and "If you don't act like adults, we will."

More than three decades since the alarm was raised, carbon dioxide emissions hit record levels in 2017 and again last year. Loading the atmosphere with greenhouse gases at current rates will eventually lead to an uninhabitable planet, scientists say.

In Stockholm, Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, 16, who launched the weekly Friday protests, said that time was running out.

"We are living through an existential crisis that has been ignored for decades and if we do not act now it may be too late," the Nobel Peace Prize nominee told Swedish public television station SVT.

Earlier in the week a UN report listed climate change as one of the major threats to the planet, along with a major extinction of animal and plant species, the human population increasing to nearly 10 billion, degraded land, polluted air, plastics, pesticides and hormone-changing chemicals in the water.

The sixth Global Environment Outlook, released in Nairobi on Wednesday, painted a dire picture of a planet where environmental problems interact with each other to create an even greater threat to human existence.

As much as a quarter of all premature death and disease is caused by man-made pollution, environmental damage and a lack of access to clean sanitation, the report said.