As global plastic production declines, the corporate sector continues to lag

A big part of the problem, she says, is precisely those little single-use plastic bags of fish and food, and the death of the “refill system”: “When I was a kid, I used to go to a and I brought my bottle and [buy] maybe five or 10 [Philippine] weight of [cooking] oil. This was the traditional way in most cultures in the region.

“Everything changed when single-use sachets and plastic were introduced.”

A Port Phillip Bay fish-shaped soy sauce container.Credit:Darren James

But that’s not even the worst.

A global system

The world produces approximately 1.8 billion tons of waste each year. According to one report, if all of this was put on dump trucks, the line would circle the planet 24 times.

About a tenth of this waste enters the global waste trade. This essentially translates into wealthy countries sending their waste to economically less advanced countries, such as those in Southeast Asia.

About 12% of municipal waste generated in the United States is plastic, which equates to 32.4 million tons in 2018. Countries like the United States, Canada, and South Korea are among the leaders in the export of waste. In 2018, the United States transported an average of 429 large shipping containers of plastic waste every day.

Since China banned waste imports from 2017, much of this waste now ends up in Africa and Asia. Since these countries are often ill-equipped to deal with the influx – in Southeast Asia 75% of it is not recycled – this means that much of it ends up in waterways. or the oceans, either by direct discharge or simply by washing. there in the rain.

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Greenpeace reported a 171% increase to nearly 2.25 million tonnes per year in plastic waste imported by Southeast Asian countries between 2016 and 2018.

To this swell of plastic waste, add a tsunami of plastic generated by COVID-19 measures in the world since the beginning of 2020. At the start of the epidemic, an NGO reported that there were already 1.5 billion surgical masks mainly plastic-based in the world. oceans of the world. By 2021, an additional 140 million test kits used, 144,000 syringes and packaging of 8 billion doses of vaccine have been generated as governments seek to stem the virus.

Pandemic measures have also put many Asian waste companies under quarantine, ensuring that while the plastic continues to pour in, facilities are not working and workers are stuck at home. Invariably waste is dumped, often illegally through obscure waste trafficking channels.

A new contract?

At the entrance to the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, in February, stood an extraordinarily powerful sculpture by Canadian artist Benjamin von Wong: a tap, suspended in the sky , spits a flood of plastic waste on the grassy forecourt.

Artwork by Benjamin von Wong Artwork

Artwork by Benjamin von Wong Artwork ‘Turn off the plastic tap’ in front of the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi.Credit:Stuff (NZ)

Maybe that had some effect, as the meeting ended with a major resolution to stop all plastic pollution by 2024.

Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), said in a statement that the agreement between 175 member countries is “the most important environmental agreement since the Paris climate agreement”. .

Susan Gardner, Director of UNEP’s Ecosystems Division, said: “Countries have said, ‘We want to do something about plastics and it’s urgent. We’re so serious about it that we think what we need is something legally binding.

Gardner referred to the Minamata Convention on Mercury, which took about five years to launch in 2017. weather. This ambition, both in terms of substance and pace, is unprecedented. »

Lots of money behind

But even a strong UN agreement may not be enough.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has been tracked since the 1980s and measures over 1.55 million square kilometers, more than twice the size of Texas. In 2016, it was predicted that it would take until 2050 for plastic in the oceans to outweigh marine life. Now, it looks like we might get there this decade.

It is possible to imagine that nations could adhere to their own measures under a United Nations convention while pushing the problem of plastic waste offshore and into the oceans.

With this in mind, Aguilar notes that a regional process is underway through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This led to the Bangkok Declaration, released in 2019.

But Aguilar says the deal “doesn’t look at the reduction, doesn’t look at the source. So that was a bit of a problem; more curative than preventive.

This source has a name. Or more precisely, it has a hundred names, those of the big companies responsible for making single-use plastic.

According to the Australian NGO Minderoo Foundation, around 60% of the total investment in these companies comes from just 20 major banks, such as Barclays, HSBC and Bank of America.

The organization reported in 2021 that “20 asset managers – led by US companies Vanguard Group, BlackRock and Capital Group – hold more than $300 billion worth of stock in the parent companies of producers of plastic polymers for use. unique.

“Of this amount, $10 billion is directly related to the production of single-use polymers.”

As Minderoo noted, Pennsylvania-based Vanguard Group is a major investor in this sector. The asset manager invests in several of the world’s top 10 plastics manufacturers.

In an emailed statement, a Vanguard spokesperson said, “Regardless of the industry, we expect companies to consider government policies, commitments and regulations in their strategies and plans. , especially when the policy… results in significant exposure.

A 2021 corporate report says the investor met with 734 companies across 29 industries through its stewardship program. Engagement categories are based on governance and material risk. There is no mention of plastic in the report even though four of the top 10 plastic producers (including the two US companies in this group, ExxonMobil and Dow) were interviewed.

Given that most of these companies are transnational conglomerates and given the categories of engagement listed by the asset manager, it seems unlikely that the issue of plastic pollution has entered any of these formal meetings. On this basis, while international and regional organizations seem to be getting more and more ambitious in reducing plastic pollution in the oceans and elsewhere, the corporate sector seems to be lagging behind.

UNEP’s Gardner notes that on current trends, we will double our already gigantic plastic footprint “in the next decade or so”: “It is largely how we use plastics that has created this problem.”

She adds that the solution “requires systemic change across the entire value chain.” This will almost certainly mean increasing pressure on plastics manufacturers in the years to come.

JJ Rose is an Australian-based author and bodysurfing enthusiast.

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