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Plastics Pollution Pact Pondered in Paris

FILE:L Environmental activist Modou Fall at the Yarakh Beach littered by trash in Dakar, Senegal, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. On his chest, poking out from the plastics hanging from him, is a sign in French that says "No to plastic bags."

PARIS - French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday warned that global plastics pollution was a "time bomb," as diplomats began five days of talks in Paris to make progress on a treaty to end plastic waste.

Representatives of 175 nations with divergent ambitions met Monday at UNESCO headquarters with the aim of reaching, by next year, a historic agreement covering the entire plastics life cycle.

As the talks opened, the head of the negotiations Gustavo Meza-Cuadra Velazquez said the challenge was "immense, as we are all aware here, but it is not insurmountable."

"The world's eyes are on us," he said.

French President Emmanuel Macron urged participating nations to put an end to today's "globalized and unsustainable" production model, where richer countries export plastic waste to poorer ones.

"Plastic pollution is a time-bomb and at the same time already a scourge today," he said in a video message, adding that the fossil-fuel based material posed a risk to global warming goals, as well as biodiversity and human health.

He added that the first priorities of the negotiations should be to reduce production of plastics and to ban "as soon as possible" the most polluting products like single use plastics.

Host country France organized a ministerial summit on Saturday with 60 countries to kick-start the talks.

The Paris meeting, which runs to June 2, is the second of five sessions in the process.

"If we don't act now, by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans", said French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna.

The stakes are high, given that annual plastics production has more than doubled in 20 years to 460 million tons and is on track to triple within four decades.

Two-thirds of this output is discarded after being used once or a few times, and winds up as waste. More than a fifth is dumped or burned illegally, and less than 10 percent is recycled.

In nature, microplastics have been found in ice near the North Pole and inside fish navigating the oceans' deepest, darkest recesses.

In humans, microscopic bits of plastic have been detected in blood, breast milk and placentas.

Plastic also contributes to global warming: it accounted for 1.8 billion tons of greenhouse gases in 2019, 3.4 percent of global emissions, a figure that could more than double by 2060 according to the OECD.

The head of the U.N. Environment Program, Inger Andersen, told the delegates that a throwaway plastic culture was "gushing pollution galore, choking our ecosystems, warming the climate, damaging our health" and that the most vulnerable were the hardest hit.

In February 2022, nations agreed in principle on the need for a legally binding U.N. treaty to end plastic pollution around the world, setting an ambitious 2024 deadline.

The Paris meeting, which runs to June 2, is the second of five sessions in the process.

Environmental groups are encouraged that global plastics pollution is finally being tackled, but are concerned the treaty may not include targets to reduce overall plastic production.

"There is a consensus on the issues at stake and the will to act," Diane Beaumenay-Joannet, an advocate at the Surfrider Foundation, told AFP.

Environmentalists have also raised concerns about the influence of industry lobbying on the talks.

There are also concerns about divisions among the countries.

A so-called High Ambition Coalition of 50 nations led by Rwanda and Norway, includes the European Union, Canada, Chile and - as of a few days ago - Japan.

But many countries are reluctant to aim for absolute cuts in production, insisting that recycling and better waste management is the answer.

These include China, the United States, Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries, all of whom have large petrochemical industries.

"Developed countries - the biggest consumers and the biggest polluters - have their products produced in other countries, and send their waste there too," said Beaumenay-Joannet.