Milner on Biodiversity Blog #6: Plastic Waste

Biodiversity is adversely affected by the torrent of plastic pollution in every aquatic environment from the smallest stream to the depths of the ocean. What can be done about it? A recent news report from the Food Packaging Forum (a trade paper) proclaimed the news that ‘drafting of the International Plastics Treaty is now underway’. Wonderful! I nearly ran outside to let off fireworks and festoon the street in bunting! Reports that the treaty resolution itself had been signed in March this year, were almost as wildly congratulatory.

But there is no international plastics treaty. What was signed to ludicrous fanfare at the international gathering of 175 country representatives in Dakar, Senegal was agreement for a ‘multi-stakeholder dialogue’ to start work to draw up principles for serious action on plastic waste, while still delaying any actual interventions. Because, as with most of these high-profile environmental conferences, serious action on this urgent issue was fatally compromised by the influence of big business. This is what the euphemism ‘multi-stakeholder’ means. Decisions which might impact the bottom line of big business are resisted. Since politicians everywhere are overwhelmingly influenced by pressures, commercial and political, expectations about progress must be modest – however much they are trumpeted by an uncritical media. Critical voices, like campaigning organizations, citizens organizations and youth groups, are generally missing inside a ‘multi-stakeholder’ negotiating process. Far from putting out the bunting, I remain sceptical. Glaciers move quicker than this, and their melt leaves such processes in its wake.

Fortunately, there are other initiatives that offer much more prospect of success, especially those involving action rather than talking – however much ‘multistakeholder’ participation is involved. I was recently walking along the bank of the River Lea in north London when I came across a floating barrage at the point where a small tributary, the Pymmes Brook, enters the main channel. The barrage had trapped a mass of mainly plastic debris, including several large CocaCola bottles and at least six plastic footballs, perhaps fifty kilos altogether. An excellent idea – if it was cleared regularly and replicated at thousands of similar sites across the globe. How many such schemes are there on other rivers, I wondered?

Around the world the Clean Currents Coalition has pioneered river plastic clean-up techniques in a number of highly polluted watercourses in different continents including the Citarum River in west Java, Indonesia and the Los Laureles Canyon on the US-Mexico border. Very innovative and probably very successful so far as it goes, but I became suspicious when I discovered that Clean Currents is a collaborative project between University of California Santa Ana and the CocaCola Foundation; ‘a network of dedicated, passionate problem-solvers combating the flow of plastic waste from river to ocean’ as per the Clean Currents website. It didn’t seem to have occurred to the University that their partners were a primary cause of the problem. Getting brownie points for helping clear up the mess they have made is obviously part of CocaCola’s business model. The clean-up of discarded plastic in watercourses and the Ocean needs more than a token effort from one of its biggest polluters.

The head of the UK Environment Agency recently warned that efforts at greenwashing like this ‘create false confidence’ in the climate fight, and the conservation of biodiversity is similarly undercut. Aware of this danger I was relieved to discover that a different approach altogether was predicted to make a real dent in the whole plastics problem. California Governor Gavin Newsom has recently signed serious, unambitious legislation restricting the use and disposability of plastics by business throughout his state. In particular single-use plastic must be reduced by 25% in the next ten years, as must the total use of plastic packaging. Combined with other initiatives including a shift to refillable containers made from other materials, the targets for reduction in plastic pollution are no longer just aspirational, they are mandatory. Perhaps these targets are less than impressive but such is the size of California’s economy (4.5 million tons of plastic currently discarded annually) these changes are likely to have a much wider impact on American business as a whole. With the bottom line affected, managers and investors are soon likely to see which way the wind is blowing. Similar legislation is envisaged elsewhere, including Canada.

Other legislative measures could have an even bigger effect. Part of the problem with single-use plastic is that being so cheap it has become almost universal. But disposal of the waste has not until now troubled the manufacturers. A more serious measure would be to impose a levy on single-use plastic at source. Not only would this provide funds for clean-up and disposal, but it would encourage innovation – favouring biodegradable alternatives that currently can’t compete.

As with other environmental issues tackling the source of the problem – in this case the origin of the plastic pollution – would offer the best prospects for the long-term health of the planet. River clean-ups are an essential contribution and should be encouraged everywhere. But they can’t be considered more than a stop-gap measure if the cause of the problem isn’t tackled. Ultimately, plastic pollution is caused by the reckless overproduction and overuse of plastic in the first place and this must be curtailed one way or another; reducing its profitability would seem to offer one way forward. As for an international plastics treaty I, for one, remain unconvinced.

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