Under the surface – the global politics of ocean plastic pollution

8 June 2018

The topic of this year’s World Environment Day and World Oceans Day is (not fully unexpected) the issue of marine plastics pollution and encouraging solutions for healthy oceans. In this blog I want to highlight some of the political issues that need to be resolved to tackle the crisis and the importance of solutions currently being devised in developing countries.

Plastic bag floating in the ocean

The tip of the iceberg

The latest National Geographic June 2018 issue “Planet or Plastic?” features a cover photo by Jorge Gamboa of a white plastic bag floating in water, photo-shopped so that it looks like an iceberg. The image is telling in many ways as most of the plastic in oceans is not floating on top - what we see is just the tip of the iceberg - and the largest share is below the surface broken up into tiny microplastics. The image is also emblematic of the contentious politics involved in finding solutions ocean plastic pollution – much of it is taking place below the surface of current media coverage.

Is the global plastics industry part of the solution or part of the problem?

Over the last few months we have seen many of the large companies, including Coca Cola and the like, which are responsible for generating large amounts of plastics packaging and waste, joining in the UK Plastics Pact with the aim of tackling the causes of plastic waste, not just the symptoms. In the media and the public, the plastics industry and big brands are now re-branding and presenting themselves as pro-active and part of the solution, which is an amazing and laudable U-turn. However, prior to the Blue Planet effect, the plastics industry was been involved in intense lobbying against any mandatory policies and targets to reduce plastic waste and bans on certain types of plastic, which has been well documented here and here.

Another fact that is often forgotten and which makes me doubtful about the sincerity of the corporate pledges, is the deep link between the plastics fossil fuel industries. As this excellent research from CIEL shows, fossil fuels are driving plastics production. Over 99% of plastics are produced from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels and plastic consumption is important for the fossil fuel industry: if current trends were to continue, the consumption of oil by the entire plastics sector will account for 20% of the total consumption by 2050. Fossil fuel subsidies also play a role as these incentivise the plastic market, allowing the cost of production to be less than production of an alternative. As we know from the politics of climate change, the fossil fuel industries are a major obstacle to a low-carbon future.

The China factor

Another major player in the global plastics politics is, of course, China. By banning the import of 24 kinds of plastic at the beginning of 2018, China has been causing disruption for many countries, including the UK, which have depended on China taking our ‘western garbage’. More recently, the newly created Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment, a new super ministry with much sharper teeth than the former MEP, has announced that other waste imports including scrap steel, post-industrial plastics waste, PET bottles and e-waste will be banned from entering China by the end of 2018. As a result, plastic waste exports are already shifting to other countries, in particular in South-East Asia. Whilst this might help other developing countries to build up their recycling capacities, it runs the risk of overburdening countries like such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia, with negative impacts for environment and oceans.

While this might cause some short-term pain, in the long-term, China is doing us a favour as it forces us to re-think the current model and throwaway habits. China’s ban on foreign waste is clearly intended to be developing and cleaning up the Chinese domestic waste infrastructure. It also raises the political question if the current free market approach and growing global trade in waste as secondary resource is the right approach to tackle this global crisis?

Strong policy, innovative solutions from the global south

Instead of relying on volatile global plastic recycling markets and voluntary commitments by the industry, implementing and enforcing bans of certain plastics and mandatory extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes are important part of the solution. The EU aims to introduce mandatory EPR schemes for all packaging by 2025, as the effectiveness of voluntary schemes has been questionable. The UK government is also going the right direction with bans and the phase out of single-use plastics.

Many governments in the global South have already taken strong policy initiatives, like bans or levies on single-use plastics, as the recent UN’s "Single-Use Plastics: A Roadmap for Sustainability” report highlights the fact that African countries are leading the way in the introduction and implementation of policies on plastic bags. In this Nature article, Harini Nagendra argues that the global south is rich in sustainability solutions, and this includes solutions to address plastics pollution. Our own research on community-based recycling and waste management in Pakistan’s informal settlements demonstrates this, too. The global south is also leading innovative and creative approaches to raising awareness about the issue, as the artwork of Pollution Popsicles by this group of Taiwanese artists shows.

Regarding the promise of biodegradable plastics, there is increasing evidence that existing biodegradable alternatives are not an environmentally helpful substitution and might actually turn out to be major pollutants (as this research published by the Royal Society Open Science shows). Interestingly, the solution to alternative and sustainable packaging could possibly come from the oceans and the global South. Seaweed is emerging as a promising new resource for biodegradable bioplastics, it is an abundant and versatile material and there is no major conflict with other uses, such as no food security conflicts compared with other alternatives made from food crops such as corn. The Jakarta-based company Evoware is developing alternative packaging solutions from seaweed and this new emerging industry could provide many new economic opportunities for South East Asian countries.

Transformative Alliances

It has been the transformative alliances of civil society, activists, artists, film makers, ecologists, academics and socially-responsible entrepreneurs, which are driving the current change in policy and pushing governments to take action. At local levels municipal governments need to become much more active in reducing plastic waste and providing local waste management services, and there is a very strong argument for an international agreement on marine plastic pollution by the UN. At last year’s UN Environment Assembly a global resolution on targets was opposed by major powers including the US, China and India, resembling the dynamics of the climate change negotiations. Only with continued action and growing alliances it will be possible to drive the change further, on local and global levels, tackling the political iceberg of plastics pollution.

Photo credit: MichaelisScientists / [CC BY-SA 4.0] / Wikimedia Commons

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