By Mike Koetting July 25
The 1968 advice of Mr. Robinson’s associate to Benjamin Braddock was all too correct. Plastics was the future. In the 50-some years since Mr. Robinson prognosticated, the world has produced more than 8 billion tons of plastic.
Some of the consequences of this are obvious.
Less obvious on a day-to-day basis, but still receiving considerable attention, is the damage to wildlife, particularly marine wildlife. My seven-year old grandson was almost crying when he saw pictures of various creatures struggling with plastics. “It just…just isn’t fair,” he said, barely choking back tears. “It isn’t the animals’ fault.”
While we don’t know the total extent of the damage that plastics are doing in the oceans, we do know more than enough to be concerned. More than 5.2 trillion micro-particles of plastics are swirling in the ocean, a material portion of which will wind up in fish that are subsequently consumed by people. It is not clear that is particularly bad for people, but neither does it seem particularly good. It is clear, however, that Ingestion of plastics has been documented as creating threats for some species, with an unknown set of threats not yet fully documented. Part of the issue is that while, in general, plastics are remarkably long-lived, there are a wide variety of plastics and an entire smorgasbords of chemical additives. Some of those have been shown to break down in water relatively quickly, leading scientists to describe them as turning the ocean into a “plastic soup.”
It is not clear the extent to which all of this is directly harming humans. A New Yorker article says:
Numerous studies have shown that microplastic is everywhere—in the melting ice of the Arctic, in table salt, in beer, in shrimp scampi. A study last year found traces of it in eighty-three per cent of tap-water samples around the world. (The incidence was highest in the United States, at ninety-four per cent.) A major concern of scientists is that chemical toxins in the microplastics may leach off during digestion, gradually building up in animal and human tissues. Judith Enck, a senior official at the Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama, said, “Where we are on plastics is where we were fifteen years ago on climate change. We’re just beginning to get the picture.”
Against this background, we have the U.S. government’s official posture on the problems caused by plastic:
- In May of last year, administration officials kept global action on plastics off the table of the G-20 summit in Canada.
- This May, the U.S. delegation refused to sign on to a treaty concerning regulation of plastic waste at a conference in Geneva.
- In June, at the G-20 summit in Japan, the U.S. delegation blocked a proposal to set specific targets on reducing or phasing-out single use plastics, particularly in regard to marine pollution.
It was the last action that caught my attention. And just barely. I only saw one article on it, just days after my grandson was voicing his concerns. As far as I could see, this particular action got lost in the tsunami of things the Trump administration is doing. But my antennae went up at the Trump administration’s argument that, basically, since the U.S. isn’t the biggest culprit, it’s not our fault and therefore we didn’t need this agreement.
Trump has blamed “many countries of the world” for the marine plastic problem, calling out China and Japan by name. “The bad news is it floats toward us” from “other countries very far away,” the president said last year, adding that the U.S. is then “charged with removing it, which is a very unfair situation.”
It is true that a number of Asian countries are the biggest, direct contributors to plastic that wind up in the ocean. Without changes in those countries, it will be impossible to achieve responsible levels of plastic pollution (whatever that might be).
But from a broader perspective, the administration’s approach is selective. The U.S. is by far the largest producer of the plastic products that wind up in the ocean. One assumes profits are made on them. Second, the production of plastics contributes to America’s use of fossil fuels, with all the environmental problems they cause. Third, the U.S. is by far the world’s largest exporter of plastic waste. We used to send most of it to China, but China has since barred receiving plastic waste from other countries. Now we are sending to a variety of other Asian countries, whose ability to properly address this waste is less sophisticated than China’s—and therefore more suspect.
In short, there is more than a small amount of hypocrisy in the official American position.
But what should we be doing? Like most environmental issues, the question is wickedly complicated. Simply banning plastics, a tempting solution, may not be the right answer. There needs to be careful analysis to determine how we will replace them and be assured whatever is used instead does not do even more damage. We must take into account full life-cycle costs, not make knee-jerk policy looking for quick-fixes to the most obvious problems.
In seems likely the mantra “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” will apply. Some of the required changes can be achieved by the combination of grass-roots attitude changes and policy fiddling. The evidence is clear that the 7 cents/bag tax instituted in the City of Chicago has reduced the use of plastic bags, indeed bags of all sorts, since paper bags also get taxed. But, importantly, this worked because people responded to the stimulus—as opposed to the implacable opposition to the Cook County soda tax, leading to its repeal.
Results at the scale necessary to address this issue will require much more concerted organization at high levels. More research is necessary on how to improve recycling, both from the standpoint of the materials and the social organization, including investments, to make them work. There are also substantial resources that will be required to clean up past messes. It is hard to imagine these steps without significant government leadership and international cooperation. Neither the causes nor impacts of these issues are likely to respect national boundaries.
Which gets to the question of who is responsible for addressing this issue. The obvious answer is that everyone is responsible for fixing this. Of course, saying that is easier than developing actual plans that involve everyone in balanced ways. It is unrealistic to not recognize that some countries have come further than some other countries. Japan, which is in some ways leading the effort to address problems caused by plastic, is among the world’s per-capita greatest users of plastics. We know that four rivers in Asia are the immediate source of as much as 80% of the plastics in the Pacific Ocean. Likewise, it isn’t sustainable global policy to assume that the U.S. deep pockets should cover everything.
On the other hand, here’s where Donald Trump’s impoverished view of policy issues—that fundamentally it’s zero sum—becomes an insurmountable obstacle. The problem of plastics in the world can only be addressed by a world-wide concerted effort. Different nations will have to play different roles and everyone will have to make some sacrifices. The only way I know to create an attitude where people are willing to engage in mutual sacrifice is to create a sense of common purpose and attitude of trust that the other guys will do their part. I don’t know whether adopting specific targets as proposed at the G-20 is the best way, let alone whether those are the right specific targets. But reading the comments from a wide spectrum of participants in these conferences left me pretty convinced that the attitude of the U.S. is perceived to be a major constraint on whatever needs to be done.
In the end, it seems my seven-year old grandson’s sense of the innate unfairness of plastics to the rest of the world is a more mature and reliable guide than Donald Trump’s sense of the unfairness of asking America to join with the rest of the world to address this problem.