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The Geopolitics of Plastic Waste

In the 1960s, “plastics” was shorthand for a shining future— as wittily demonstrated in the famous scene from the 1967 film, “The Graduate.”  A half-century ago, plastics were becoming enshrined as the space-age material that brought lightness and brightness to everyday living.

Plastic products successfully replaced metal, glass, wood, and paper in many consumer items as well as in durable goods, from refrigerator to cars. Plastics were clean and sanitary and lightweight and moldable, meaning they could enhance the design of everything from food containers to buildings.

But as is well-documented, even as plastics continue to play a crucial role in supporting modern life, their runaway success coupled with their ease of disposal and difficulty to recycle has resulted in a ubiquitous waste stream that now threatens global sustainability.

In a blog post on the Canada Clean 50 Awards site, Lauren Smith, CEO of PolyGone Technologies, put it this way: “While there are plenty of good uses for these flexible, light-weight, cheap, and varied materials, there is a massive problem from their overuse. If you look around your current surroundings, wherever you’re reading this, there are probably several different types of plastic you can easily spot – and even more that you can’t. From your phone, to what you’re sitting on, to even your clothes, it’s challenging to avoid plastic in this era.”

Unavoidable truth

Not only is plastic unavoidable, it is hard to get rid of and so the more of it that is made, the more of it enters the waste stream and as that volume keeps growing rapidly, unrecycled plastic  is ending up where no one wants it. And that includes winding up in our oceans, where it wreaks havoc on marine ecosystems, to inside our own bodies.

“With the growing action on climate change and need to reduce CO2 emissions, it makes sense that plastic pollution is receiving more attention; plastic is, after all, oil,” Lauren Smith notes in her post. “How can we claim to be acting to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change if we do not address the plastic problem? “

There are several ways to try to address that problem, including using less plastic in manufacturing to begin with, moving away from the heavy use of single-use plastic for everything from water bottles to disposable razors, and developing far better ways to recycle plastic, as right now most plastic either cannot be recycled or is not profitable to recycle.

Another age-old way to solve the problem is to just dump plastic waste somewhere it might be tolerated, even welcomed. It can be cheaper for developed countries to ship containers of plastic waste to developing countries.

Although exporting plastic to be recycled elsewhere can be a lucrative business practice, “rogue firms find it even more profitable to either incinerate plastics or dump them in landfills [overseas],” states Dr. Helena Varkkey of the University of Malaya’s Department of International and Strategic Studies, in an opinion piece written for CNN. “Burning plastic releases noxious fumes into the air. Plastics in landfills can leech out toxins, and these plastics and toxins can end up in local waterways.”

This shipping of waste to developing countries is not new. But it had gotten so out of hand by 2019, that 187 countries agreed that year to amend the international Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal so that the consent of importing countries is required before mixed, unrecyclable, and contaminated plastic waste can be exported to those countries.

The biggest impact of classifying certain plastic waste as hazardous is that countries party to the Basel Convention “can no longer import these types of plastic waste shipments from non-parties, such as the United States. Parties are prohibited from shipping hazardous waste to and from non-parties, unless such transfers are regulated under special bilateral or regional agreements that contain standards equivalent to those established under the Basel Convention,” according to Sabaa A. Khan, Senior Researcher at the Center for Climate Change, Energy and Environmental Law (University of Eastern Finland).

Impact of U.S. action

But while this treaty development pushes the world to develop better solutions for plastic waste than shifting it from one part of the globe to another, without the United States being party to it means nothing truly game-changing is going to happen quickly to curb this gargantuan environmental challenge.

Quite the contrary, as The New York Times recently reported, the American Chemistry Council, which represents the world’s largest chemical makers and oil companies, is lobbying to influence U.S. trade negotiations with Kenya to reverse its strict limits on plastics.

The U.S. wants Kenya, which has one of Africa’s largest economies, to drop its plastic-bag ban and to keep importing plastic waste— despite it having pledged to limit those imports.

“Kenya, like many countries, has wrestled with the proliferation of plastic. It passed a stringent law against plastic bags in 2017, and last year was one of many nations around the world that signed on to a global agreement to stop importing plastic waste — a pact strongly opposed by the chemical industry,” the newspaper report states.

The reporters also write that the “proposal reflects an oil industry contemplating its inevitable decline as the world fights climate change.” They also report that a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, said in a letter that there’s “a global need to support infrastructure development to collect, sort, recycle, and process used plastics, particularly in developing countries such as Kenya.”

The council represents the petrochemical operations of Exxon Mobil, Chevron, and Shell, as well as major chemical companies including Dow.

To be sure, that’s a lot of political firepower for shooting holes in things like worldwide bans on dumping— and shipping to dump-- plastic waste. And that reactionary approach to the issue can only land a bigger blow to the health of our planet.

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