About 170 countries have been locked in tense negotiations over how to reduce plastic pollution after a week of UN talks in Paris surrounded by a frenzy of industry lobbying.

Negotiators have agreed to develop a first draft of a treaty to reduce plastic pollution but there are still divisions over issues such as whether the rules will be legally binding and whether they will limit petrochemical companies’ production of new plastic materials.

A group of 130 countries, including Mexico, Canada, New Zealand and most of Europe, want binding rules. But fossil fuel producing countries such as the US, Russia and China want a less ambitious, voluntary system in which countries are free to establish their own frameworks. 

Capping new production would be a blow to the petrochemical industry, which is growing more reliant on rising demand for plastic in emerging economies as the world moves away from fossil fuels.

A coalition of businesses has backed the stricter approach, including some of the world’s biggest consumer groups such as Unilever, Nestlé and PepsiCo, as well as retailers and packaging makers. At the talks, they campaigned for standardised rules to address the full lifecycle of plastics, including reducing production, reuse and recycling, and the phasing out of harmful chemicals.

Jodie Roussell, senior public affairs manager for packaging and sustainability at Nestlé, said that a legally binding agreement with harmonised rules was critical. “Businesses recognise that ambitious goals and aspirations to end plastic pollution in a treaty have little value on their own,” she said on Saturday. 

A binding treaty was required to provide “regulatory predictability”, said Anke Boykin, senior director of global environmental policy at PepsiCo

But Emma Priestland from Break Free From Plastic said: “We understand businesses need harmonised rules and that’s the best situation for them, but we aren’t seeing them make much change in their business models now.”

Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Mondelēz and Unilever are the companies that produce the most plastic pollution, according to non-profit organisation Break Free from Plastic.

Industry representatives lobbied heavily at the Paris negotiations © REUTERS

The American Chemistry Council (ACC), an industry body representing the petrochemical sector, argued for solutions that would not require reduced production, such as waste management and recycling.

The ACC called for technological solutions such as chemical recycling, and emphasised the need for the continued use of plastic materials in aerospace, transport and medical applications.

“We’ve heard a lot of talk this week about capping production but we’ve also heard a lot of talk from governments about the role of plastics to achieve society’s goals,” said Stew Harris, ACC senior director of global plastics policy.

Campaigners warned that lobbying by the petrochemical industry could result in a watered down treaty.

Greenpeace USA’s Graham Forbes said: “The overarching risk is that this treaty becomes a waste management treaty.”

Negotiations on the substance of the treaty only began on day three of the Paris session, after Saudi Arabia, Russia and China objected to the treaty being agreed by majority vote, rather than by consensus. Consensus would mean that countries could veto its adoption.

The first draft of the treaty is due to be produced by November, and countries will have until the end of next year to settle the final terms.

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