By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
The G20 on June 29 took action on plastic waste by committing to the Osaka Blue Ocean Vision, with the goal of stopping all plastic entering the oceans.
If this is the best they can come up with, I almost wish they’d done nothing instead.
For starters, the deadline for achieving this – 2050 – must be someone’s idea of a joke.
Even this limited, slowly rolled out scheme is “voluntary”.
And the means to the end? Invoking our old friend, the recycling fairy (see Plastic Watch: Recycling Woes and Waste Watch: US Dumps Plastic Rubbish in Southeast Asia for a discussion of some of the myriad problems with this approach).
I kid you not.
Here’s the relevant section of the G20 Osaka leader’s declaration, from the Japan Times:
39. We reiterate that measures to address marine litter, especially marine plastic litter and microplastics, need to be taken nationally and internationally by all countries in partnership with relevant stakeholders. In this regard, we are determined to swiftly take appropriate national actions for the prevention and significant reduction of discharges of plastic litter and microplastics to the oceans. Furthermore, looking ahead beyond those initiatives and existing actions by each member, we share, and call on other members of the international community to also share, as a common global vision, the “Osaka Blue Ocean Vision” that we aim to reduce additional pollution by marine plastic litter to zero by 2050 through a comprehensive life-cycle approach that includes reducing the discharge of mismanaged plastic litter by improved waste management and innovative solutions while recognizing the important role of plastics for society. We also endorse the G20 Implementation Framework for Actions on Marine Plastic Litter.
Details are sketchy on how even these vague commitments would be achieved.
The run-up to the Osaka G20 summit saw a full-scale propaganda onslaught, focusing on how Japan – the world’s second-largest abuser of plastics, only surpassed by the US, on a per capita basis – wished to lead on this issue.
That would have been a good thing, as there’s plenty about the way that Japan uses plastic that needs to change (see this recent Quartz piece, Japan’s single-use plastic problem on display at the G20 Summit, which includes plenty of depressing photos documenting the Japanese penchant for swathing everything in plastic)
Alas, the way Japan wishes to lead is as by relying on technofixes – which are far from certain to be realized. Chasing these false promises will instead likely only delay the day of ultimate reckoning (as I discussed further in Plastic Watch: Debunking the Technofix Fairy, Biodegradable Bags Don’t Degrade). According to this Reuters account, G20 plastic trash reduction goal doesn’t address ‘excessive’ production: activists:
G20 host Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wanted to make tackling the issue a priority at the G20 summit in Osaka this past weekend. He has said he wants Japan to lead the world in this mission, including by developing biodegradables and other innovative alternatives.
So, the resulting Osaka Blue Ocean Vision is underwhelming, to say the least. I’m not surprised actually. It’s far easier to wave one’s hands and say something must be done – at a date sufficiently far in the future – than to tackle the problem by banning use of most plastics.
To do that would require taking on an entire industry that profits from manufacturing and selling plastic. And, after all, all that excess fracked shale gas has to be used somehow, doesn’t it? (see this cross-post from DeSmogBlog’s Sharon Kelly, Why Plans to Turn America’s Rust Belt into a New Plastics Belt Are Bad News for the Climate, and my earlier post, Fracking Boom Further Spurs Plastics Crisis).
Cost-free Virtue Signalling Rather than Taking on the Plastic Pushers
How pathetic is the G20 initiative? Well, so pathetic that the plastic pushers praised the plan! Allow me to quote from Plastic Makers Welcome G20 Osaka Blue Ocean Vision to End Ocean Plastics at length, released by the American Chemistry Council:
WASHINGTON (June 29, 2019)—The G20 countries adopted a Leaders’ Declaration today in Osaka. The American Chemistry Council issued the following response, which may be attributed to Steve Russell, vice president of ACC’s Plastics Division:
“America’s plastic makers welcome the G20’s Osaka Blue Ocean Vision to end plastic leakage into the ocean, and we applaud Japan’s leadership in addressing this important issue. We look forward to working with G20 countries to help make this vision a reality.
“Eliminating ocean plastics will require innovations in products, systems and technologies; global deployment of waste management infrastructure, particularly in areas where the most leakage is occurring; and strong public-private partnerships. Plastics makers are helping to promote advancements in each of these areas.
“Plastic waste is an urgent problem, and importantly, it’s one that can be solved with ongoing cooperation, innovation, and investment.
“Plastics offer numerous environmental benefits, such as helping to conserve resources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Lightweight, efficient plastics can help the world’s growing population live more sustainably—but we need to do a better job of capturing and repurposing used plastics, to create a more circular economy, while continuing to meet society’s needs.
“Many of America’s plastic makers are among the founders of and contributors to the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, a new nonprofit with a goal of deploying $1.5 billion to help develop the systems, knowledge, and infrastructure needed to collect and repurpose waste, including in regions where most environmental leakage occurs. Other key members of the Alliance include brand owners, plastic processors, and recyclers.”
Not a word about reducing use of plastics. Yes, I suppose it unlikely that the people who make the stuff would utter any such sounds.
What Do Activists Say?
Those who don’t get paid by plastic manufacturers understand how inadequate the G20 commitment is. According to Reuters:
“It’s a good direction,” said Yukihiro Misawa, plastics policy manager at WWF Japan. “But they’re too focused on waste management.
“The most important thing is to reduce the excessive amount of production on the global level,” he said.
Reuters also quoted a US source who condemned the G20 initiative in stronger terms:
“Ultimately, this is very disappointing,” said Neil Tangri, global plastics policy adviser at the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives in Berkeley, California, said of the G20 statement.
“The focus is on collecting and disposing of plastics instead of reducing the quantity produced,” he said. “Japan has the opportunity to lead on this issue by reducing the production and use of plastic. They’re fumbling the opportunity.”
What’s necessary, at minimum, and even now may be too little, too late, is to curtail drastically production and use of plastics, particularly of the single-use variety. Unfortunately, the largest and richest countries have yet to get around to doing so. Both the US and Japan last year rejected the G7 ocean plastics charter – non-binding commitments to work towards recycling or reusing plastic by 2030 (see my earlier post. US, Japan Reject G-7 Ocean Plastics Charter). The European Union’s policy is marginally better; the European parliament passed legislation earlier this year to ban single-use plastic in all member states.
Instead, African and South Pacific countries have led on banning single use plastics.
What Is to Done?
Just as does climate change, the plastic issue fills me with despair. I wish I could be more optimistic, like my late friend Renee Sørensen, who focused on helping the small Maldivian island of Maafushi to develop a better waste management system (see Dengue on My Mind: Spending on ‘Diseases of Poverty’ Not Enough to Create Effective Vaccines). Renee regarded plastic pollution as a challenge to be met rather than as a cause for despair.
Alas, Renee died suddenly last year, from dengue fever.
And now, a mere year later, plastic water bottles still sully Maafushi harbor, and plastic straws and other rubbish are ubiquitous.