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Environment

US 'Waters Down' First Global Commitment to Curb Single-Use Plastics

By Nita Bhalla and John Ndiso

NAIROBI, March 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Nations made their first global commitment toward curtailing the surging consumption of single-use plastics on Friday, but critics said it failed to confront the planet's pollution crisis with the United States blocking efforts for more radical action.

After five days of talks in the Kenyan capital, ministers at the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) agreed to curb items like plastic bags, bottles, and straws over the next decade as part of moves aimed at creating a more sustainable planet.

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"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.

Countries would "work with the private sector to find affordable and environmentally friendly alternatives," it added.

The nearly 200 environment ministers also made a host of other commitments — ranging from reducing food waste and marine litter to developing and sharing innovative technologies and consulting indigenous people when developing policies.

But environmental campaigners said the governments' commitment on curbing plastic was disappointing and failed to urgently confront the ever-growing pollution crisis threatening the world's waterways, ecosystems and health.

Negotiators said most nations, including the European Union, at the UNEA backed stronger action suggested by India which wanted governments to commit to "phasing-out most problematic single-use plastic products by 2025."

But a few countries led by the United States — and including Saudi Arabia and Cuba — played "spoiler" by watering down the text, replacing it with a commitment to "significantly reduce" single-use plastics by 2030, said negotiators and campaigners.

"The vast majority of countries came together to develop a vision for the future of global plastic governance," said David Azoulay from the Center for International Environmental Law.

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

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Brian Doherty, a member of the US delegation at the UNEA, told delegates 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.

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.

Plastic also enters water supplies and the food chain, where it could harm humans in the long term, the UN added.

Action is gearing up around the world - from countries banning plastic bags to companies vowing to cut their usage of plastic - yet still more efforts are needed to both reduce and recycle plastic, environmentalists said.

(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla and John Ndiso. Editing by Jason Fields. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)