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.