By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She now spends much of her time in Asia and is currently working on a book about textile artisans.
The Trump administration’s trade tantrum at this month’s G-7 Summit in Charlevoix, Quebec, overshadowed the failure of the United States and Japan to endorse the (modest) Ocean Plastics Charter.
This commitment by the other members of the G-7– Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the European Union, “to move toward a more resource-efficient and sustainable approach to the management of plastics” is rather weak tea– and non-binding.
The charter has five sections, and numerous subsections (the complete text may be found here. There are two headline pledges. First, “working with industry towards 100% reusable, recyclable, or, where viable alternatives do not exist, recoverable, plastics by 2030.”
Now, I don’t expect the technology fairy to ride to the rescue here and solve the ocean plastics problem overnight. Yet some G-7 countries– France, for example– are seeing some success in developing bioplastics that have less of a harmful impact on the environment than oil-based plastics. As Al Jazeera reported yesterday in France’s plastic revolution:
These include plastic produced from seaweed and algae, sugarcane and even milk – designed to try and replace harmful oil-based plastics.
Using biological materials allows these new plastic products to decompose over shorter time periods after use, in some cases, cutting decomposition time from more than 500 years to a mere four months.
And the second G-7 headline pledge, “Working with industry and other levels of government, to recycle and reuse at least 55% of plastic packaging by 2030 and recover 100% of all plastics by 2040.” In this language I see an additional slim basis for optimism. Although there’s still too much emphasis on recycling– rather than reduction in the use of plastics– the percentages and deadlines, albeit voluntary, improve slightly on previous commitments (see Planet or Plastic,and EU Makes Limited Move on Plastics: Too Little, Too Late?).
Binding Commitments Versus Complete Inaction
In announcing the Ocean Plastics Charter, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to contribute 100 million (Canadian dollars) to reducing global ocean plastics pollution. The plan is noticeably short on details, and Canadian environmentalists, among others, have called for stronger, binding measures, as reported by the CBC in Environmentalists ‘encouraged’ by G7 plastics charter but urge more action.
Environmental groups like Greenpeace Canada said the charter is a non-binding, voluntary agreement that doesn’t address single-use plastics.
“Recycling alone will not solve this problem and reduction measures are necessary if we are serious about curbing ocean plastics,” said campaigner Farrah Khan in a release.
Khan wants Canada to create binding legislation that sets reduction targets, bans single-use plastics and holds corporations responsible for the plastics they use.
Similarly, DW.com lamented the dearth of firm commitment in G7 minus two: Leaders agree to ocean plastics charter— and highlighted that this isn’t the first time that world leaders failed to do much more than express good intentions to tackle the global plastics crisis:
Greenpeace International Executive Director Jennifer Morgan lauded the signal, but called the plans tepid. “While the leadership to outline a common blueprint is good news, voluntary charters focused on recycling and repurposing will not solve the problem at the source,” Morgan said in a statement.
“Governments must move beyond voluntary agreements to legislate binding reduction targets and bans on single-use plastics, invest in new and reuse delivery models for products, and hold corporations accountable for the problem they have created,” Morgan continued.
Although many are welcoming the initiative, it won’t be the first time world leaders have expressed good intentions around tackling the issue. In the past, it hasn’t gotten much further than that — an intention.
Yet even these non-binding commitments endorsed by five G-7 members are better than the complete inaction taken by the United States. Science Alert reported in The US And Japan Are The Only G7 Nations That Refuse to Tackle Plastic Pollution:
In fact, it appears that President Trump was not even present at the meeting. Shortening his time at the summit, Trump reportedly skipped out on the G7 climate change and environment talks, sending a US representative in his stead.
At the meeting, the US also refused to sign a G7 commitment to the Paris accord and a carbon-neutral economy.
At the bottom of the charter is a footnote, stating, “The United States strongly supports heathy oceans, seas and resilient coastal communities. The United States has announced its intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, and reserves on the climate related language in the Blueprint.”
In the US case, it’s not merely inaction, but instead, a full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes approach, to increase production of plastics (my emphasis), as I wrote earlier this year in Fracking Boom Further Spurs Plastics Crisis. Not only is the Trump administration ignoring this issue, but the problem looks destined to worsen:
due to investments being made by some of the very same companies that have brought us climate change. As The Guardian reports:
Fossil fuel companies are among those who have ploughed more than $180bn since 2010 into new “cracking” facilities that will produce the raw material for everyday plastics from packaging to bottles, trays and cartons.
The new facilities – being built by corporations like Exxon Mobile Chemical and Shell Chemical – will help fuel a 40% rise in plastic production in the next decade, according to experts, exacerbating the plastic pollution crisis that scientist warn already risks “near permanent pollution of the earth.”
“We could be locking in decades of expanded plastics production at precisely the time the world is realising we should use far less of it,” said Carroll Muffett, president of the US Center for International Environmental Law [CIEL], which has analysed the plastic industry.
As the Science Alert piece notes:
The US plastics industry is the third largest manufacturing industry in the US, producing 19.5 percent of the world’s plastic, employing 1.4 million people and creating about $380 billion a year.
The problems that this industry has created are staggering. Every year, the world produces around 300 million tons of plastic, and every year, 10 million tonnes of plastic winds up in our oceans.
Just like Big Oil, the plastics industry has known about this problem for years.
A 2017 report released last year by [CIEL] found that the plastics industry knew its products were pollution the oceans way back in the 1970s. The industry has rejected responsibility and fought regulation ever since.
There’s no reason to think the US plastics industry will abandon its efforts to thwart plastics regulation anytime soon, especially as its perspective and concerns appear to have been endorsed and accepted by the Trump administration. In fact, as DW.com noted:
As a sign of how the Trump administration stands on plastic pollution, in August 2017 it revoked a ban on the sale of plastic water bottles in national parks such as the Grand Canyon.
Should not be surprised at all about the Trump administration refusing to accept any responsibility for environmental damage caused by such things as plastics. I suspect that Trump echoes an earlier President with the thought that the business of America is business. For him, it’s like the environmental concerns of the 1960s and 1970s never happened.
Of course it should be no surprise too that Japan went along with this as business runs Japan to the exclusion of most other factors. Just this morning I read that there is a ‘government proposal to use soil contaminated with radiation from the area of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant for agriculture and road construction’. A lunatic scheme just to save a buck.
Still, the word is moving on without waiting for them. Just this week a factory was built in the UK to supply paper straws to replace the plastic straws used by places like MacDonalds. Some of the technologies mentioned in this article are also hopeful. I detect a sea change.
Sounds like another example of USA leading from the rear.
Solar/methane-powered pyrolytic ovens on barges stationed in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Pyrolytic ovens *love* plastic as it releases methane which can be captured and used to continue the process of decomposing plastics. Scoop the plastics from the ocean, feed them to the oven where, when heated, they release methane, burn said methane to keep oven up to temperature.
Okay, that’s one solution. Others?
Assumes a concentration of Plastic in the Ocean which is not extant.
And your better idea is??????
Not true. There are masive floating gabage patches out there. The result of converging trade winds.
I just read the text and it does not seem to get to the heart of the matter. Over 90% of ocean plastic comes from ten Asian rivers. Most of the countries through which these rivers pass have, at best, rudimentary waste management practices: better garbage collection, landfill and waste dump management, tighter requirements for plastic clean-up on farms, rigorous regulation and enforcement of dumping by factories would seem to me to be what should be pressed. Feel good pseudo-goals about recycling are not going to solve the problem in the near term.
Also, the US really ought to ban the exportation of our garbage “recyclables” to Asian nations that are ill-equipt to handle it safely. China is stopping the flow, but other Asian nations are taking up the slack—this is NOT good news.
For the actual top 10 list (which is only in the supporting documents)
Thank you Hana and bwilli123.
I always appreciate it when people supply real data.
This is sobering and important information.
The policy implications seem to be, whomever is the most threatened (and therefor the most willing to pay i.e. first world nations) ought to be ponying up big bucks to clean up the Nile, Yangtze, Rhine and Saginaw.
The other related issue that is not discussed here is that, by weight, a great deal of ocean plastic debris is lost or abandoned fishing gear. We already regulate global fishing–that could be a promising place for international efforts to start.
In some cases, little or nothing we do onshore is likely to help. A surprising 20% of the sample analyzed here could be traced back to the 2011 Japanese tsunami.
The big problem with deep sea fisheries is not so much lack of regulation, but that its heavily dependent on subsidies. Stop the subsidies, and there would be a dramatic cutback in overexploitation and the consequent plastic pollution.
As long as we seem unable to get away from shipping everything everywhere over long distances — plastic containers are significantly lighter than glass containers. I don’t know how much energy it takes to press out plastic containers but producing glass uses a fair share of energy. Glass containers can be reused in ways plastic can’t and I very much prefer glass containers but that said our glass industries have made re-using glass containers needlessly difficult. I’m talking about just trying to remove the labels from jars and keep or replace the jar lids which seem designed for single use. So in their way plastic containers save energy and the petroleum needed to run our ridiculous systems of distribution.
But why such concern about plastics and plastics pollution when there seem like much bigger problems to deal with. As we overfish, thanks to subsidies as PlutoniumKun pointed out, and as the rising levels of CO2 in the ocean waters make it harder and harder for shellfish and the little creatures at the base of several ocean food chains to build their shells, all this worry about plastics seems misplaced. It’s like the frenzy to recycle that amounted in the end to programs for shipping some of our trash to poor states or to poor countries overseas.
And if we’re concerned to adapt to the future, figuring there isn’t much else anyone of us can do, I think we need to work on acquiring a taste for jelly fish, and maybe Monsanto could attempt some GMO magic to help make them more palatable.
After a night of babysitting the dog through thunderstorms I am tired so I apologize if I ramble a bit.
===”But why such concern about plastics and plastics pollution when there seem like much bigger problems to deal with”====
I am grateful for the time Jerri-Lynn has spent on plastics and the environment. I spent the bulk of my working life in plastics engineering and especially injection molding.
You cannot imagine the amount of plastic parts/products that get manufactured in a day. I spent several years working in the closures segment of injection molding. In one company a single production order would range from the thousands to the millions. Many injection molding machines that make caps, spouts, and closures are large machines( with molds that generate 144 parts in a 15 second cycle. Many closures are made in stack molds that can double the quantity produced. One mold I remember was called the Eliminator because it was a double stack mold and would produce 800,000 tops for mustard squeeze bottles. Also along with consumer goods the amount of medical devices that are injection molded and has grown exponentially in the last 30 years. If people would realize the SCALE of the amount of plastics parts produced in just a day they would be shocked.
While we might have “bigger problems to deal with”, the consumption and consumerism of plastics disposables has to be in the conversation.
A book called The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on Earth mentions two people that to me underscore the issues we have with our insatiable appetite for plastics disposables and convenience. One is Allan Shnaiberg and his Treadmill of Production and Accumulation Theory. The other is Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and his work on Entropy and Economic Processes. Both indirectly show how our industrial processes and our overconsumption are contributing to our environmental issues.
Lastly I read Philip Slater’s The Pursuit of Loneliness a while back and he discusses something he refers to as the Toilet Assumption. Basically anything we do not want to deal with gets physically or metaphorically flushed down the toilet—out of sight,out of mind. I think that is how we relate to our use of plastics in this country and the world. But as Jerri-Lynn has been doing a great job of pointing out– there are and will be severe consequences. As I have tried to point out the problems are not just in the plastics litter but in the amount of energy and other resources used to produce the plastics.
Coming full circle as you mention the use of glass containers I imagine that if many of the things we make out of plastics were made from glass, the energy required to make the glass and the WATER required to clean the glass would be huge!. So some plastics has its place.
All I am saying is we need to be less hyper-consumption oriented and disposable focused and we do need to at least need to worry about and be conscious of how much plastics we are using and where does it go?? In our throw away culture I am not optimistic. As they say Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
“Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” and put a stop to planned obsolescence and a throw-away society, especially throwaway plastics. OK … so … how are plastics re-used and or recycled? Glass has to be sorted and cleaned, paper, sugar, and other stuff cleaned away — what about plastics? There seem to be quite a few kinds of plastics around, they don’t seem compatible in mixed batches, and how do you get the labels and label glues off? As a plastics engineer do you believe it is even practicable “to recycle and reuse at least 55% of plastic packaging by 2030 and recover 100% of all plastics by 2040”? I think we may be stuck with “Reduce”?
I am concerned that a lot of human energy spent fussing over recycling stuff is energy wasted and not spent fussing over other things which I believe will be of greater importance to our futures. Cutting back on plastics would be a good way to cut back the profits in petroleum production, especially the production of the kinds of low grade petroleum products the U.S. is left with. A NOAA blog suggests “we generally focus removal efforts on shorelines and coastal areas, before debris has the chance to make it to the open ocean.” I see in a above comment by Hana M, “Over 90% of ocean plastic comes from ten Asian rivers.” Which leaves me wondering, are we really talking about a littering problem?
I thought of an interesting twist in applying agnotology. What could be better than getting debate going about a problem blown out of proportion and then blown into confusion with a proliferation of competing reports promoting contradictory assertions to tie up the debate. Multiply the problems blown out of proportion and I think with a well designed effort an interested party might suck all the oxygen out the public discourse on matters which might impact some bottom line.
Agnotology. Wow what a word! A great Scrabble word. Ignorance or Culturally induced ignorance. To borrow from Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits: Seek to Understand, Then to be Understood. So what is your point? Our culture is ignorant by focusing on plastics? Or our culture is ignorant in the amount of plastics in the environment, waste streams, etc.? If you still believe the plastics issue ( not just littering) is blown out of proportion than we disagree.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle was meant to borrow a slogan and a generalization towards conservation and not just focus on the recycling aspect. Regarding recycling if you look around your local supermarket and read some of the labels especially in things like detergent, etc. you will see that a lot of products use post consumer recycled plastic. A lot of plastics is recycled, but we just do not see it or realize it. Many plastics can be recycled through an injection molding machine a few times such as ABS, PP, and other. When PVC degrades it gives off hydrochloric acid gas. Most IV bags are made out of PVC(or used to be). But as far back as the late 80s Europe was banning PVC in many products including IV bags. The US? Not so much.
However I agree that too much focus has been put into recycling which absolves the conscience of the hyper consumer. What we need to do is reduce and other solutions.
=====I see in a above comment by Hana M, “Over 90% of ocean plastic comes from ten Asian rivers.” Which leaves me wondering, are we really talking about a littering problem?
As I think was mentioned somewhere else the US ships a lot of our waste to China so some of the plastic coming from the Asian rivers is ours. It is also not just “littering” but landfills, garbage barges, etc. And if the littering problem is not in the US( which I believe is part) some of the Asian plastics are probably disposables from US companies. And even something happening in Asian( smog, etc.) can affect our environment here. So no we are not just talking about a littering problem. In my comment I was not just focused on “pollution/littering” but the sheer amount of energy(electricity, oil), other resources, and manpower needed to make 5 different kinds of a plastic consumer good.
Lastly all the NC commenters, next time you are in the supermarket look around and notice how much plastic is used in packaging. Do we really need several different flavors of Gatorade and other products???
I’ll assume you know agnotology is a very recent coinage and means much more than culturally induced ignorance. To maintain control the Roman elites used panem et circenses, to which in more “modern” times Lippman added manufacturing consent, and to this our tobacco companies added agnotology. I think this concern over plastic is a cooked-up issue related to recycling, which I believe is another made-up issue. My comment suggests that the techniques of agnotology can work as well for cooked-up issues as they can on other larger, ostensibly more “real” issues.
Consider the idea of recycling. Sounds like a great idea — until you take a close look at the logistics and processing required to collect, sort, clean, and re-process the recycle. I carry my beat-up old re-useable bag to the market and into stores to carry home my purchases. I purchase items in glass in preference to plastic containers, when glass is available, because I have a special fondness for glass. I carefully wash and reuse glass jars and many bottles. Getting the labels off has become more problematic as industry adopted some nasty glues that only come off with considerable effort. I still break down my cardboard, collect old magazines, and rinse out my glass containers, and plastic milk and carbonate plastic drink containers before adding them to the recycling bin … even after finding out we’ve been “recycling” all this stuff by shipping it to faraway ‘other’ places. I feel like I’ve been ‘had’.
Now consider the plastics issue in particular. While we fuss over plastic straws and agreements for future decades did the little embarrassment of how we’ve been “recycling” slip from mind? While we are all fussed over recycling — did anyone forget the Arctic ice will all too soon be gone? And while we focus on Arctic ice did we forget our endless foreign wars burning money, lives, and enormous amounts of petroleum products? And did you forget our 7+ billions are pushing toward 9 billions and petroleum isn’t infinite. But the show goes on.
I doubt any of the NC commenters were unaware of the ubiquity of plastics. But where did we discuss the most troubling aspect of plastic — its alien nature as a material and its life of 500 years, which I believe is a number more hopeful than actual. And you didn’t answer my pointed question: As a plastics engineer do you believe it is even practicable “to recycle and reuse at least 55% of plastic packaging by 2030 and recover 100% of all plastics by 2040”? Can plastics be re-cycled? Of course they can. But how and at what costs and unforeseen impacts? And what is “recover” supposed to mean exactly? I think the meaning of agnotology is clearer than that usage.
Good discussion. To answer your question yes 55% by 2030 is possible although I am not sure about recovering 100% of all plastics by 2040 is possible. Now can we let go of the recycling issue?? If you reread my initial response to your comment about overfocusing on plastics pollution I mention little about recycling. What I did focus on was the scale of plastics production in the world, the huge amounts of energy, resources, etc. to take plastic products from an ethylene chemical to plastic resin to plastic product. That is why I directed you to the references I provided: The Ecological Rift and also Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s work.
Now as I have pointed out in my prior comments I think there is a place for more glass usage but there is probably a lot of energy used in producing glass and the water involved in washing glass. Overall I would like to see less plastics and less plastic products.
=====While we are all fussed over recycling — did anyone forget the Arctic ice will all too soon be gone? And while we focus on Arctic ice did we forget our endless foreign wars burning money, lives, and enormous amounts of petroleum products?=====
Again please let go of the recycling issue. I think I stated in a previous response that I AGREED with you that recycling gets more attention than warranted and we need to reduce and conserve and consume less.
In my systems view of things I see everything as connected so while the Arctic Ice is melting and we are engaged in endless wars our roughly 50 year love affair with plastics has to be rethought. I look at plastics as part of our hypercapitalism/affluent, consumption oriented society. In my mind a main factor in the Arctic Ice melting and endless wars is the insatiable appetite for consumer goods that the Western World and now China has. That is why I think the Ecological Rift book and Allan Schnaiberg and Georgescu-Roegen is so good. Also if you have not already done so please read some of Jerri-Lynn’s previous posts that she highlighted above
Lastly I appreciate that you “carefully wash and reuse glass jars and many bottles”. I wish more people exhibited a caring nature for the earth and the things they buy and use. I am a fan of the author and environmentalist Wendell Berry and I think he still uses a crank washing machine!
BTW. I have worked in the plastics industry for most of the last 31 years. Even in the late 80’s and early 90’s there was a concerted effort on the part of the plastics industry to explore recycling and even biodegradable plastics. There was a lot of research and development, articles, and technical conferences devoted to using less plastic in parts and products and making plastics use more environmentally friendly. Also over time the business community and the plastics industry have made a concerted effort to reduce the size and amount of plastics used in many products. The average consumer does not know because we cannot see it. Since the average consumer cannot see it(i.e. not a marketing ploy) I believe the corporations and the plastics industry realized that the environmental issues of plastic was not a “cooked up” issue and was and is a problem. But they are also hypocrites in that they still come out with new products in plastic packaging.
Do I think “some” of the recycling fuss is of a Lippman/Chomsky/Bernays manufacturing consent? Sure, as I said in a previous comment I think recycling is a way for people to feel good while they go about their hyperconsumption, throw away, disposable, consumer life. Unfortunately all the good intentions of the corporations and the plastic industry’s reduce and recycle effort are no match for the treadmill of accumulation and production and Proctor and Gamble’s five different types of dishwashing liquid tsunami. Nothing must deter from capitalism on steriods!! If you had worked in a field for 31 years I would try to defer to your experience and knowledge in that field so please give me the same courtesy. In my professional opinion and experience the concern over plastics contribution to our ecological issues is not a blown out of proportion or cooked up. It’s use and production is one of many underlying factors in our hyper capitalism culture and that culture leads to the Arctic Ice melting.
I applaud your efforts to “still break down my cardboard, collect old magazines, and rinse out my glass containers, and plastic milk and carbonate plastic drink containers before adding them to the recycling bin”
. I believe if everyone did the same you would not feel like you have been had. We all have to do our part. Yves has mentioned it before, we all have to start practicing Radical Conservation or else.
I have read and appreciate your comments and I believe I’ve read most, if not all of Jerri-Lynn’s posts on plastics. I intend no disrespect to your 31 years of experience working with plastics in questioning your regard for plastics as a most important source of pollution and energy use. After 31 years I would expect that you would and should have high regard for the importance of plastics in many respects. But — “Overall I would like to see less plastics and less plastic products.” “I look at plastics as part of our hypercapitalism/affluent, consumption oriented society.” Now we’re closing in on what we both see as a root cause of the problem. Olga commented in today’s links that there are also some 7.8 billion of us now.
There are over 7 billion of us. A few hundred million could work on overfishing, a few hundred million more on fixing the glass re-use problem*. That leaves literally billions to think about plastics pollution, yes?
*you realize that your glass beer bottle has a lot of plastic in it? — the reusable ones don’t, not sure why, it was just something I learned watching the Yuengling guy interviewed on some cable channel.
If all 7 billion of us just organized and divided ourselves up into a few thousand sub-activist groups we could think about over-fishing and glass re-use and plastic pollution and all sorts of things — divide et impera. Unfortunately more than a few of our 7 billion strong are already focused on other small problems like bringing in fresh water and getting food while holding themselves together in a miserable existence. Be satisfied with the numerous trash-pickers wondering over the mountains of refuse we helped build with our exported trash and “re-cycle”. I’m sure they ponder the problems of plastic pollution and recycling. I sincerely hope trash-pickers don’t number in the millions though.
As for your assertion about the plastic in my glass beer bottle. I assume you mean the plastic — on — my glass beer bottle? About the production of glass containers (including glass beer bottles) Wiki says, “At the cold end [of the production line] a layer of typically, polyethylene wax, is applied via a water based emulsion. This makes the glass slippery, protecting it from scratching and stopping containers from sticking together when they are moved on a conveyor. The resultant invisible combined coating gives a virtually unscratchable surface to the glass.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glass_production]
We’re America, bitch! Trump’s Imperial Policy.
I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice will not sleep forever. Jefferson
If God was just, Jefferson would not have the reputation he has.
On the good news front, nearly 4 billion plastic shopping bags are used in Australia every year and the majority go to landfill but they are being gradually banned. Woolworths, one of the two big chains in Australia, has already of today ending using them in Queensland ahead of the state wide ban coming into effect next month. Similar laws already exist in other parts of the country including South Australia, the ACT, Tasmania and the Northern Territory with Western Australia and Victoria also banning plastic bags this year, leaving New South Wales the only state where lightweight plastic bags will be allowed. I am already looking to get a coupla string mesh bags off of eBay – the same sort I remember as a kid before plastic bags became widespread. Hopefully, those single-use plastic water bottles will be next.
Why the hell do most people need straws anyway?! Just open the damn lid and drink! Sheesh! One of those developed country problems that eventually become a developing country problem.
“Culturally induced ignorance”
…Groomed to consume, not to consider ramifications…..
Bear in mind that nobody really knows yet how harmful all this plastic in the oceans is. It’s still possible that having bits of microplastic in fish, and then in us, will turn out to be no big deal.
Let’s hope so. I’m afraid the die is cast — although there’s no good reason to continue making things worse.
Hope springs eternal…
What happened to the Cheney and Rumsfeld precautionary principle? /that’s a joke, son.