EU Plastics Ban: “Doesn’t Go Far Enough”

Lambert here: This is very nice, to see The Real News Network picking up on an article our own Jerri-Lynn Scofield wrote back in January, and giving Naked Capitalism a shout-out, as well. A video of the interview, plus the transcript, follow.

GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network, and I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.

On March 27 the European Parliament voted with a very large majority, 560-35, to ban single-use plastics. In fact, the resolution targets 10 types of plastics that are in use in straws, cutlery, plates, and cotton buds. Also, by 2025 plastic bottles should be made of 25 percent recycled content, and by 2029 90 percent of them should be recycled. The ban will come into effect in all EU member states by 2021. The EU currently produces about 25 million tons of plastic waste per year and less than 30 percent of voters recycled over 80 percent of waste in the oceans is plastic. Also, this waste has created an enormous island of plastic waste in the Pacific Ocean known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is said to be twice the size of Texas.

Joining me now to discuss the plastics ban are Jerri-Lynn Scofield and Jonathan Latham. Jerri-Lynn Scofield used to be a securities lawyer and derivatives trader who now writes for Naked Capitalism, Truthout, and other outlets. She joins us from Kolkata, India. And Dr. Latham is the co-founder and executive director of the Bioscience Resource Project. He joins us from Ithaca, New York. Thanks, Jerri-Lynn and Jonathan for being here today.

JONATHAN LATHAM: Hi, Greg.

JERRI-LYNN SCOFIELD: My pleasure.

GREG WILPERT: So Jonathan, let’s start with you. Why is the banning of single use plastic important? Can you give us some examples of what makes them so harmful to our health and our environment?

JONATHAN LATHAM: Well, there’s two fundamental issues. One is that these plastics don’t biodegrade very well, if at all. So what they end up doing is blocking the airways and stomach passages and so forth of animals, so large animals and small animals all die from having too much plastic inside them. But the second issue is that these plastics also poison animals. So in many cases, they have heavy metals inside them. Some of them are made from endocrine disruptors, some of them are made from toxins of other kinds, and there are a whole mishmash of chemicals that basically have bad effects on the natural world. So they can poison many, many animals. And so, there’s two kinds of problems that follow from these plastics.

So Jerri-Lynn, in January 2018, you wrote an article for Naked Capitalism titled EU Makes Limited Move on Plastics: Too Little, Too Late. Do you think that the EU legislation as it passed now is strong enough to deal with the problems that Jonathan outlined?

JERRI-LYNN SCOFIELD: I certainly don’t. I believe the EU step is one in the right direction. I point out that within the last couple of years, the state of Michigan actually put a ban on municipalities in Michigan imposing bans on plastics. So cities, municipalities that tried to ban plastics were told by the state that they shouldn’t be able to do that. So at least it’s a first step. However, I think it’s a very, very modest step compared to what is necessary. And I point out that places like India, which use far less plastics per capita–24 pounds per person in India, compared to 240 pounds in the U.S.–India has passed a ban on single use plastics that goes farther than the EU legislation that you’ve discussed, and with a deadline that’s only a year out from what the EU has put on the table.

GREG WILPERT: Jonathan, would you like to respond to Jerri-Lynn, and what do you think of this legislation?

JONATHAN LATHAM: The issue with this legislation, I would say, in part is in addition to what Jerri-Lynn says, that it doesn’t go far enough, that we have an economy that is designed to produce wasteful products. And the fundamental issue with a ban is that it doesn’t address that. We could make products from natural products we could make straws from paper or hemp or cotton, and all kinds of products that would provide livings for farmers, who at the moment, are making biofuels because there’s not enough of a market for the products that they do actually produce. The chemical industry wants them to grow corn because corn can end up as a biofuel. But corn uses a lot of pesticides to grow.

So you’ve got this economy that is fundamentally serving these huge multinational entrails which often go back to the chemical and oil industries. And really what we wanted to do was serve small businesses, farmers, individuals who wanted not to be poisoned for these products. And so, we need to redesign our economy, which perfectly well could be done. But unfortunately, banning plastics takes us, in a sense, in the opposite direction because it makes people think that we’re doing something when really we’re doing next to nothing. But secondly, more laws don’t necessarily make a better country, as Confucius said.

JERRI-LYNN SCOFIELD: Can I jump in, Greg, and expand on that?

GREG WILPERT: Yes, please.

JERRI-LYNN SCOFIELD: I agree with you completely, Jonathan, and I want to add to that that the boom in fracking in the U.S. has resulted in an increase in the plastics being generated, and those plastics are going to go somewhere. So even though the EU is banning–and I point out it’s a limited number of things they’re banning. They’re banning cotton buds, plastic cutlery, takeaway containers, but they’re not banning plastic packaging, clamshells for example. So number one, you still have these, what I called the plastic pushers, pushing plastic, which is a huge problem. And then second of all, and something that I don’t think Jonathan mentioned but I think he’d agree with me on, there’s too much reliance once this plastic is being generated on not only banning, but on what I call the recycling fairy, that we can all sort our garbage and we can continue to use plastic, but it will all get picked up at the back end.

And I want to point out that about a year ago, China, which since 1992 was recycling 45 percent of the world’s plastics–so when you stick your plastic in a recycling bin, it’s not recycled, until about a year ago it was shipped to China. China stopped doing that, and that has caused huge havoc in the world’s recycling market, making us realize that this solution of recycling was no solution at all. So the combination of continuing to push plastics and relying too much on recycling is creating an incredible catastrophe.

GREG WILPERT: So just to summarize, I mean, basically what both of you seem to be saying, to put it in a nutshell, is that we have to reduce the amount of plastics we’re producing in the first place. Is that correct, Jonathan?

JONATHAN LATHAM: Yeah. I mean, we can have–a lot of this comes from the food system, right. And we can have a local food economy, for example, that would much less rely on packaging. So yes, I mean, there’s no solution but to reduce the production of these products. The U.S. consumer is considered to produce 30,000 pounds of chemical waste every single year, and a fair amount of that is basically byproducts of the production of plastics that are then disposed of. So you personally don’t use 30,000 pounds of plastic or fossil fuel chemicals, base chemicals every year, but somebody is doing it on your behalf.

GREG WILPERT: I just want to go back to the point of the legislation now. Jonathan, we had you on last October on The Real News to talk about the ban when they voted on it back then, and it also passed by a similar margin. Now, why did another vote take place and what has changed since then?

JONATHAN LATHAM: That’s a good question, but it’s probably not the right one to ask me. I don’t know enough about the EU’s internal politics to be sure about that. I’m based in the U.S. these days. But essentially, this is the kind of legislation that’s going to generate general support, basically for the reasons that we suggested. It doesn’t address root cause problems, but it puts way too much of the burden on people who are conducting their daily lives and are under a lot of pressure, from basically inequality, to do the recycling and to take the recycling out, and to pick out the bits that are left by the recycle people when they spew it all over the pavement and so forth. And so, this fits into the political model, which in the EU isn’t very different from the U.S., which is basically that nobody, no business wants to take responsibility for its own pollution. And so, even though the commission talks about “the polluter pays,” and so on and so forth, the biggest payment will be made by the individuals who have to basically make adjustments to make the system work and to make them look good.

GREG WILPERT: Now I just want to turn briefly to the issue of how this was passed, and that is, the movement to ban plastics. I mean, it passed by an enormous majority, so there seems to be growing awareness of the problem. I just want you to address briefly if you think that this movement–is that having an effect, that is, on the legislators, or what’s going on here? Jerri-Lynn, what do you think? I mean, is this a growing movement to ban plastics more generally or are they just doing the minimum necessary?

JERRI-LYNN SCOFIELD: Well, I think the movement is important, and I think that more people are realizing that plastics constitute a huge and growing problem and trying to do something about that. But I point out, as individuals sitting alone, there’s a limited amount that we can do. And I think it’s important that The Real News and other places that address these issues emphasize that this EU thing, it makes everybody feel good, but it’s a bit of virtue signaling. Because I think it’s saying, “Oh yeah, we’re all worried about plastics and we’re going to do something about it,” and it makes people feel they’re doing something about it. And to the extent it inconveniences people, it’s putting the issue front and center. But if the solution actually doesn’t really grapple with the magnitude of the problem, I wonder how useful such legislation is. I think we just need a far more sweeping reconsideration of how we use plastic, how we overpackage things, how we waste things; starting at the beginning and not trying to figure out how to dispose of the waste that we shouldn’t have created in the first instance.

GREG WILPERT: Jonathan, what about the U.S.? I mean, what’s going on there? Is there any movement within the U.S. to deal with this issue? Because so far, no laws been passed, at least on the national level, as far as I know.

JONATHAN LATHAM: Yeah. I mean, the issue I’d really like to pick up on is this issue of what effect these kinds of legislation have on the political system. The points that Jerri-Lynn makes is that we’re trying to put a dysfunctional solution onto the top of a dysfunctional system. And what this reminds me of is the solution to CO2. Basically, the transport sector in many parts of the world was transitioned over to diesel fuel many, many years ago. And yet, even nonprofits like Greenpeace champions the adoption of diesel. And essentially, diesel was considered to be a solution that increased the mileage of cars. You got something for nothing, right. You got a car that did three times as many miles per gallon as it used to. But essentially, two things are going on in that issue. One is that it is totally an illusion to think we actually save CO2 when you run your car on diesel. It produces the same CO2 emissions out of the tailpipe, but what happens with your car is that basically, diesel is a more concentrated fuel.

So all of these people thought they were doing a great thing for the environment by switching over to diesel or buying a new car and spending a lot of money on a new car, and companies changed their vehicle fleets over to diesel and so on and so forth. But the real driving force behind it was that the chemical industry, the oil industry, had a superfluity of diesel. Basically, we are taking all the light fraction of oil and using it in cars, and they didn’t know what to do with the heavy fractions, and so they needed to generate a need. And now, 20 years down the line, people overlooked all the pollution issues with diesel, but it wasn’t in any way a solution to the carbon dioxide usage of the transport system. And now we end up with basically a disillusionment around the political system and its ability to solve ecological problems, and a cynicism also around the environment movement. Because basically, the environment movement supported the switch to diesel, and they did it on completely illogical grounds, but they did it anyways.

And so, the long term penalty of these kinds of policies is that ultimately, this policy will come back to bite us too. Because we’re trying to recycle things without having plastics, without having uses for them, for example. We’re down-cycling, we are generating resentment among the public who’s spent decades recycling products to find out that they’re not actually recycled and so forth. These are all not good policies to be using. So although they seem like a small thing at the time, these fundamentally illogical responses generate major political and social problems down the line.

GREG WILPERT: OK. Well, we’re going to have to leave it there for now. But I’m sure we’ll come back to this issue, because obviously it hasn’t been solved. I was speaking to Jerri-Lynn Scofield and Jonathan Latham. Thanks again, both of you, for having joined us today.

JONATHAN LATHAM: Thank you.

JERRI-LYNN SCOFIELD: Thank you.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

2 comments

  1. Ignacio

    Congratulations Jerry-Lynn! And good job!

    One of the problems I have identified is relying on private companies to manage recycling. In Spain, the company in charge of plastic rcycling is ECOEMBES, a private company. In functions this way: companies producing over some amount of plastic in consumer goods have to pay ECOEMBES for recycling. Besides, there is a municipal levy for plastic recycling. These companies are also shareholders in Ecoembes, i believe.

    The problem is that the way ECOEMBES functions is obscure and the statistics it releases are dubious. One of the consequences of obscure private management is that there is no real cost assigment to producers. Certain packing systems are very cumbersome to recycle (mixtures of residues) and those are not properly taxed and companies do what they want for a minutiae compared with the environmental costs and recycling. It is regulatory capture by design.

    Reply
  2. False Solace

    It’s truly deranged that companies are allowed to produce and sell products and ignore without penalty all the rest of the product lifecycle — the problem they create. I suppose this didn’t matter much before the rise of industry. Most everything that was produced would biodegrade and people didn’t buy mountains of stuff just to throw it away. But with disposable products, with plastics, with crapification and built-in obsoletism, it is now a huge problem. We have entire industries built around the premise that their products have to be replaced after one or a few uses, and they can’t be meaningfully recycled in any way. It’s the behavior of a brat, a child with no foresight, and reflects the diseased nature of our economy. A few who profit hugely by despoiling the nest.

    Reply

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