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U.N. talks for a global treaty to reduce plastic waste are floundering

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Tiny bits of plastic have been found everywhere in the environment and inside human bodies. Negotiators are in Canada this week to hash out a global agreement to clean up plastic pollution. NPR's Michael Copley reports.

MICHAEL COPLEY, BYLINE: Every year, the world produces about 400 million metric tons of plastic waste. That's about the sum total of how much every human on the planet weighs. Scientists say the problem is only getting worse, but countries can't agree on how to fix it.

DOUGLAS MCCAULEY: I don't think it's an understatement to say that where we're headed at right now with progress in negotiations is towards failure.

COPLEY: Douglas McCauley teaches environmental science at University of California, Santa Barbara. He's consulted with the State Department. And he says the talks are failing mainly because the U.S. refuses to throw its weight behind measures that could drastically cut pollution, like capping production of new plastic.

MCCAULEY: It's not that the U.S. is actively opposing some of these policies that could make a difference. It's that they're showing no action whatsoever - no ambition whatsoever for adopting any of these policies.

COPLEY: Plastic is made from fossil fuels. Some scientists and environmentalists who've consulted with the State Department say it's pushing policies favored by fossil fuel companies and the plastics industry, like recycling, which researchers say won't drastically cut pollution on its own. Other countries face similar criticism, but the U.S. has outsized influence. It's the top oil and gas producer and the world's biggest economy. Carroll Muffett says the country isn't using its power to limit industry's influence. Muffett leads The Center for International Environmental Law.

CARROLL MUFFETT: We've seen over and over that industry influence can be extraordinarily corrosive to progress. So far, we have yet to see the U.S. on the right side of that issue.

COPLEY: The plastics industry, for its part, is happy with the U.S. position. That's according to Matt Seaholm, who leads a group called the Plastics Industry Association.

MATT SEAHOLM: I think they've done a very good job of trying to balance all of the interests. We certainly don't agree with everything that they have stated.

COPLEY: A spokesperson for the State Department said it's important that every country back the agreement. That would include big fossil fuel producers like Russia and Saudi Arabia. The challenge is coming up with an accord that does that and that makes a big dent in plastic pollution.

Michael Copley, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PSYCHIXBEATS' SONG, "MARCH SNOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michael Copley
Michael Copley is a correspondent on NPR's Climate Desk. He covers what corporations are and are not doing in response to climate change, and how they're being impacted by rising temperatures.